Magazine article The Spectator

Paris of the Gutter

Magazine article The Spectator

Paris of the Gutter

Article excerpt

ALPHABET OF THE NIGHT

by Jean-Euphele Milce, translated by Christopher Moncrieff

Pushkin Press, £7.99, pp. 148, ISBN 9781901285765

£6.39(plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, lies on a marshy bay encircled by mountains.

It was founded in 1749 by the colonial French and named after a vessel, Le Prince, which anchored there about 1680 (and not, as the dictator 'Papa Doc' Duvalier apparently liked to believe, after The Prince by Machiavelli). Thousands subsist in shanties built on landfill at the harbour's edge; even a light rainfall can put their homes under flood. Uptown, an illusion of space prevails. The presidential palace, a vast lair of power, stands at one end of a palm-fringed plaza.

On Tuesday, 12 January, Port-au-Prince teemed as usual with cigarette vendors, bootblacks and marchandes. On the Rue du Commerce, office workers were making lastminute purchases before returning home.

It was 4.30 pm, and a fug of burning refuse hung over the city, as always. The earthquake lasted 60 seconds and pulverised the Palais de Justice, the Palais de Ministres, the twinspired pink and white cathedral, as well as the presidential palace. An estimated 150,000 people have died in Port-au-Prince alone; the main cemetery is now a dumping-ground for corpses. ('Souviens Que Tu Es Poussiere', proclaims the sign above the entrance. ) By any standards, Haiti represents a very great concentration of misery and dashed hopes. Since independence in 1804, emperors, kings and presidents-for-life have misruled the Caribbean island through violence and a theft of public funds. The West has been complicit in the misrule. The 1957-1986 regime under 'Papa Doc' and his son 'Baby Doc' was supported by the United States as a bulwark against communist Cuba. 'God has chosen Haiti to test out his concept of Hell', writes Jean-Euphele Milce in his novel Alphabet of the Night, first published in France in 2004.

Born in Haiti 40 years ago, Milce has reportedly survived the earthquake. His brief novel unfolds in the 1980s during the Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier tyranny. Throughout, Port-au-Prince is portrayed as a sort of Paris of the gutter; beneath the dash of French custom moulders a 'foul smelling' city that has 'lost all sense of being a capital'. The narrator, Jeremy Assael, is the last line of a family of Haitian store-keepers. Each morning, under rain or burning sun, he unlocks the padlocks on his store on the Rue du Commerce and wearily greets his security guard Lucien, who happens to be his lover. …

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