Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Haitian Alphabet: One Soul’s Rising

Tired of zombie stories, movies, television series, and video games? If so, try Haitian Jean-Euphèle Milcé’s searing short novel Alphabet of the Night. It may be the antidote you need. Set in the smoke-blackened capital city of Port-au-Prince during the dying days of the Duvalier dictatorship, in the very land where the zombie (zonbi in Haitian Creole) was born, this story—for all its zombies and voodoo, for all its bloodshed and violence—offers little titillation for those weaned on Hollywood, Max Brooks, and AMC. What it offers instead is a portrait of a gravely wounded man and nation haunted by corpses, the missing, and the walking, still-talking dead. 

After the daylight murder of his lover, Lucien, Jewish shopkeeper Jeremy Assaël decides to leave his cursed and lawless homeland for good, but not before discovering the fate of his childhood friend and one-time lover, a mulatto named Fresnel, who has mysteriously disappeared. By the time the novel opens, the Duvalier family has ruled the country for nearly thirty years through a strategy of corruption and terror: an estimated 30,00o Haitians have been murdered by ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s security forces alone, thousands ‘disappeared’, and tens of thousands more exploited, terrorized, and finally forced to flee the country with nothing—quite literally—but the clothes on their backs.

Jeremy Assaël’s quest to learn the fate of his missing friend and lover takes him on a journey through the hell of contemporary Haiti in the course of which he encounters a broad sampling of the Devil’s disciples—government henchmen, foreign aid workers, Catholic priests and Brothers, Protestant missionaries, Rotarians, and even a German Consul General.  Commencing his journey on All Souls’ Day, an important Catholic holiday of alms-giving and prayers for the dead trapped in purgatory (Dante, by contrast, begins his journey through Hell on the day before Good Friday), the narrator has first to make his way through the raucous celebrations, celebrations which, while ostensibly Catholic, are in practice something much much more. Indeed in Haiti, All Souls’ Day has a special resonance for the descendants of African slaves, mixed with voodoo, as it is, and informed by the deep-seeded fear that one’s deceased loved ones have becomes zombies, dead people who cannot get across to lan guinée (literally Guinea, or West Africa), the leafy-green paradise of their ancestors. Only through the intervention of a voodoo priest and the execution of an elaborate series of rituals can the dead be so freed.

Near the end of the novel, the narrator himself meets a hougan, a voodoo priest, who helps him to complete his quest. For, like his black compatriots, Jeremy Assaël yearns to discover—if only in a secular sense—if his lover, Fresnel, has become a zonbi or crossed safely to lan guinée.

Jean-Euphèle Milcé, born in 1969 in Haiti, readily identifies himself as an ex-islander. Having qualified in Applied Linguistics at the State University of Haiti, he trained in information and library management. Jean-Euphele Milce taught Creole Literature and was in charge of the main National Library of Haiti. In 2000 he settled in Neyruz, Switzerland with his wife and children. Alphabet of the Night is published by Pushkin Press.

Related recommendations:

The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, C.L.R. James
Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti, Amy Wilentz
Travesty in Haiti: A True Account of Christian Missions, Orphanages, Fraud, Food Aid and Drug Trafficking, Timothy T. Schwartz, Ph.D.
All Souls’ Rising, Madison Smartt Bell

Peter Adam Nash

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