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Alphabet of the Night
 

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Alphabet of the Night


  JEAN-EUPHÈLE MILCÉ

  ALPHABET

  OF THE NIGHT

  Translated from the French

  by Christopher Moncrieff

  PUSHKIN PRESS

  LONDON

  To a child who might be called Sébastien, Juliane, Chrystelle, Réginald, Océane, Each time the family’s dusty footsteps tell the story of the crossing.

  For Carmen Milcé, Daniel Gombau, Laura Saggiorato, Jean-Marc Maradan, Michel Lebrun.

  Increase our taxes, ask us for much gold and silver, for a Jew will give all he possesses for his country.

  RABBI ISAAC ABRAVANEL

  Contents

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  PART ONE

  1

  2

  3

  4

  5

  6

  7

  8

  9

  10

  PART TWO

  1

  2

  3

  4

  5

  6

  7

  8

  9

  10

  11

  12

  13

  14

  PART THREE

  Also Available from Pushkin Press

  About the Publisher

  Copyright

  PART ONE

  1

  20th October

  8 a m

  THE DAWN BRINGS ME its first tints in changing swirls of colour. Port-au-Prince always wakes to find its cries, its ill-expressed sorrows smothered by a pall of smoke. Rising up from the ground, hopes destroyed by the daily struggle for survival hang over a place that has lost all sense of being a capital. The town howls. Its voice fills the air along with the shouts of the thousands of street vendors, the bootblacks, those polishers of oppressive boots. As if we have been under constant shellfire, smoke rises straight into the sky, blocking out the light. It is the omen of another dreary day.

  I warm up last night’s coffee. Everything that finds its way through the darkness of this country holds within itself a shred of memory, a little cache of lost lives. How can you do business in a country where nothing is stable? Every day brings new prices, new things forgotten. Damn it all! Who can tell me what happened last night? We are all accessories to the silence, to the night’s ghostly patrol car made of matchboxes.

  Lucien will be here any minute. To the customers he is the security guard. But the fact is, he knows the shop needs him and his sawn-off Winchester. His job is to prove we are not secure. To me he is an employee, a friend, a passive lover. Every morning he comes into my bedroom, brushes against my senses, takes down the old shotgun then wanders off to drink the hot rum that helps him play the part of a security guard.

  Time to open the shop. I take the ton of padlocks off the door. The air doesn’t smell good today. It is the same breeze that brought the news that my cousin had been found dead without her jewels. It is that silent gust of wind which brings out the town’s rage, blurs the boundaries of what is imaginable. Padlock by padlock, word after word.

  Lucien is not superstitious. He is simply afraid of the dark at high noon. He acts as a shield for a washed-out business that keeps on losing its customers. Every week I count up the missing and the dead. I even like to think I am up to date. Joël has left. Mariette has lost her job. Fritz has been executed. No one dared die a natural death.

  It is eight o’clock on a shipwrecked morning, wrinkled, scorched by exhaustion. Lucien is at his post outside the door, ready for the long ritual. Without him, what is left of my customers would not come and buy condensed milk, sugar, boxes of anti-mosquito spirals, cheese, flour. I am scared. The security Lucien provides is small-scale. People believe he can use that gun they all see. But he is just absorbed in his games. Every day he bets a glass of tafia that he will come home safe. The rough alcohol is eating away at his lungs. He coughs to show that he is still alive. And when he thinks he has a reason to be doubly alive, he increases the dose and collapses, delirious.

  Lucien’s nights are filled with his plans from the daytime. He knows the four o’clock news always gives the latest number of dead. Anyone could be on the list. Security guards first and foremost. But his fight for survival does not give him time to work out what the metaphor for the end might be. Every day could be the end of a world or the end of a man. To hide is suicide, to live merely dangerous. This town would be dead even without the poverty that drives people to attack the Place de la Cathédrale, the seashore and anywhere in between. There is no doubt about it, my shop makes a living off those who have departed and those who plan to depart. A drop of water for Georges, a pinch of salt for Clara, a nip of three-star Barbancourt rum for Simon and Jacques. In the name of all those who have left, rightly or wrongly, and who are watching us from the great unknown, I declare my day open.

  The first customer who comes to the till hands over his money with the first news of the day:

  “More than a thousand homes were destroyed last night in a fire at Varreux. Residents claim they caught workers from the National Electricity Company pouring fuel oil into the large stagnant canal that runs through the shanty town. They then got a fire going, making people run for their lives and killing mosquitoes, dogs, children and the elderly. The strongest tried to contain the blaze. But they couldn’t. Everyone resigned themselves. We are so used to living with the living dead that all we can do is tighten our belts yet again. The pain is gut-wrenching. If life came back with every new day, we wouldn’t give a damn about the dead; but, poor devils that we are, all we have left are memories.”

  It is the season for nonsense, open to exile. Another customer arrives. She doesn’t even do me the honour of looking at me. I assume she is hiding the clouds of the night. The silence of the morning is another sign of the nightmares people live. Warily she looks at the shelves. It is as if there was a ghost in every tin of food. Her footsteps scrape the floorboards, accompanied by the sound of her chattering teeth. Her fear is the same as everyone else’s. An everyday fear, easily recognised. Being a good salesman I show her my haggard face. My real face. At the till she will take at least five minutes to jam her purse back down inside her bra.

  “Drivers of public transport are threatening to strike in protest against armed fare-dodgers. This is the fifth such action in the space of a month. The public transport drivers’ main demand is directed towards a substantial drop in the price of oil products. There is no need to point out that this sector is of vital importance for the daily life of the country. Members of the public are already worried about a slowdown in their businesses if no agreement is reached between the parties concerned within the next twenty-four hours.”

  The news breaks in little flakes. This latest broadcast comes from the channel run by the current opposition party.

  2

  20th October

  8 30 a m

  THE STREET TAKES ON its colours, despite the expectation of a day of mourning. To me, every day is much the same. I’ve seen so many. Tomorrow’s costumes are not in my diary. It’s not my problem. Habits are like gangrene. They get into your bones, go with you to the grave. I admit there are little things I am fond of. Starting the day without them is like an old wound that has faded. You find yourself rubbing the scar to get the last drop of pus.

  Lucien’s favourite street-seller should be here soon. It is five years since she took over the job from her mother, who died in a sanatorium from a bad case of tuberculosis. For five years she has not grown. She has just kept the wrinkles from her crumpled adolescence. If she didn’t have this job, she would probably be a beggar or a whore. Being a whore is a more serious business. It allows y
ou to be out late at night, gives you a grandstand view. There are so many things to see in this country. Hookers are part of the scenery of the night. They have a multiple visa up their skirts.

  But the street-seller prefers the daytime game. She is even pale. Basket on her head, she goes round selling her smoked herring pasta and hard-boiled eggs. She provides Lucien with his lunch. I love to see him, gun across his knees, sniffing her pasta. She always serves it to him on a white enamel plate. It is Lucien’s plate. I am rather jealous of the pasta-seller’s voice, her long blue skirt and red sandals. Poor Lucien: he can’t chat people up while I’m around. We have a pact. I told him that our relationship is sustained by a mutual need to barricade up our fate and ward off our fears. I would like to see him wake up every morning with a woman who cooks pasta for him and brings him his coffee. I have never had that sort of life; and I admit it doesn’t feature among my interests.

  On both sides of the road, shop windows unveil their takeaway dreams. In this neighbourhood, business is not done in a conventional way. We all understand each other. We work together. People buy things in bulk from me then sell them on just outside my shop. To an outsider it might seem an odd way of working, unfair competition. But we have our code of practice in the unofficial market, the underground. I am a fully paid-up member of this family of hawkers, of satisfiers-of-hunger. It is the strangers that frighten us. Even in the middle of the dense, thronging crowds you can recognise a newcomer by getting a sense of his intentions.

  The girl, the pasta-seller, comes into the shop with her blue skirt, her red sandals, but without her basket. She looks serious. Her breasts are almost bursting out of her blouse. She leans right up against the counter and says:

  “Monsieur Assaël, I’ve just been serving Police Constable Gaspard. He was in a hurry to finish eating because he’s on official business. He’s waiting for a colleague who’s got a score to settle with a security guard. You know, Monsieur Assaël, security guards, there’s a lot round here. But I know them all. The police officer didn’t say much. But his vague description reminded me of Lucien. I think the other policeman has got a grudge against this security guard, who insulted him in a bar when he wasn’t in uniform. Please, do something for my customer. My instinct tells me it’s him. Ask him to come inside, hide him. Heaven will reward you many times over.”

  I come out from behind the counter. Let’s call it an attempt. The thunderbolt had time to rip up the street-seller’s bid to intervene and to shatter my memory. The gunshot was close. Too close. Lucien is dead.

  Lucien died as he lived: without joy. I have a feeling my life is going to plunge into the communal grave. The policeman who had a grudge against Lucien did not even bother to hide. He did not come into the shop. He had obviously finished his day’s work; or it was just an extension of his night.

  I left the door open with Lucien lying across it. The Rue du Commerce has succeeded in driving me out. Me, the third generation of Assaëls in Haiti, and I am being forced to run away. My family has lived in this country since the time of the generals on horseback at the four gates of the capital. There is no such thing as a Jew without a shop in any of the Banana Republics. It is our sector, our means of survival; the only real connection we have with these countries.

  3

  23rd October

  All day

  CURFEW IN MY HEAD. It is the same all the time here, in this country that has always lived in me. I can’t move. Close the shop. Drink the last glass of rum. Leave. This country is pursuing me. It takes its siesta at the same time as me. We are both failures, caught by a ravaged, ragged history. And my future? Where is it trapped? I was born of imported parents, with no land of my own.

  I dream of a life where you don’t wake up with the taste of sulphur in your mouth, where you aren’t surrounded by empty cartridges and the tell-tale marks of machetes. I am losing my customers. Alice has gone up north somewhere. Jeannine is still lying low in some embassy, waiting to get her marching orders through the back door of the Interior Ministry. Apparently her husband has been reported missing since a price was put on his head. Jeannine is swimming with all she has left of her flesh and blood, despairing at the uncertain tomorrows. Her daughter, who used to ask me for Swiss chocolate on the sly, managed to make the fraternity of killers exhaust themselves with pleasure. Her body was covered in bruises, her sex full of answers and injuries. Lucien’s body is still lying outside the door in a pool of blood.

  And that is how every awakening goes down in history, how it returns to the annals of time, those guardians of outdated bric-a-brac. Headless lives. Hopes dismantled in a hurry. Still, you get used to being alive. God damn it! Won’t a flash of lightning penetrate my sober sense of reason? I can’t find enough paper to swallow up my Jewish roots. I am in transit in a displaced country lost at sea. I claim to associate a piece of stumbling, badly-played jazz with every friend of mine who is missing. I don’t ask to live in an area where I have ties. Yet my shop is a place for selling, bartering, for political down-and-outs. Unlike the other shopkeepers I know, I choose to listen to my customers.

  I have always been fond of this kind of work: a counter, plenty of faces coming and going, whining, puffed up with their own importance. With my ethnic background I could never have been a psychologist.

  Port-au-Prince’s awakenings sing of wounds inflicted on the sun. Each morning it picks up one less spear. I don’t wish to play the prophet in a country that belongs to the wild laughter of rapists, but I foresee an eternal eclipse before the end of my world. To live here is to accept the burden of Lucien’s death. It is to accept that you have to castrate your own words. Like the cry of the waves on a stormy night, the people come out of their cardboard city, out of its courtyards that wear the colours of another life, to launch an attack on the town. We know that without rumours, without courtyards full of traps, Port-au-Prince would be unable to find its footing as the town of the ogre, the manager of illusions smothered during the birth of desires.

  Every crossroads is willing to listen to passions that are dead and gone. They are washed regularly by floods caused by the horror that sweeps away anything that shows signs of taking root, leaving behind dreams of victories won by loyalty. And just so no one is in any doubt, this city’s tortured crossroads start to panic if you stare at them too long. By order of the dynasty of big chiefs, anything that stays here longer than a season is accused of plotting against the security of the destructive order. Out of habit, and respect for today’s movers and shakers, Port-au-Prince has been declared a transit town.

  I ask myself why I waited until I saw Lucien’s lifeless body before deciding to break with destiny. Perhaps, like the missionary Johnny Bell, I was dreaming of the steep climb to redemption. Every time he tries to convert me to Protestant Christianity, all he talks about is the town being cursed. According to him, God chose this town to test out his concept of Hell. People who live here get the best education there is in fighting against pain and evil.

  It is not by chance that the missions and congregations randomly offload all their deviants onto this city’s welcoming shores. That is why you meet paedophile headmasters, swindlers in charge of humanitarian aid, Nazi prison chaplains. Sometimes the words of Bell the missionary fill the space in my drifting hopes. Today more than ever I want to believe his theory, that this town is Hell’s laboratory. I am going to answer the call of the underground. I have fought it for too long.

  4

  26th October

  11 30 a m

  THE SEAL OF POLICE officer Amazan on a stamped piece of paper, which has to be paid for first, is the last obstacle before gaining access to the main street of Gonaïves, my family’s first adopted town.

  Along a weary old road that reminds you of the chaos you find after a place has been cleared of mines, you enter the little town of salt marshes. The houses, leaning against posts eaten away by the salt, almost buried in dust, preside over a deathbed scene. During daylight the cathedral, closely pro
tected by its parade ground or the heroes of the Independence, meets the eye from all directions. This iconic landmark of the town has never changed; it must hide the secret of how the game is played. Endlessly.

  I spent the first twelve years of my life in this town, which prolongs the status of moun vini,* strangers who arrived in cardboard boxes. This is no longer a secret. Jews, Levantines and other white folk are the first boat people Haiti can remember. Well might the history books talk about the Italian navigator who led a horde of subjects belonging to Her Very Catholic Majesty the Queen of Spain; people don’t give a damn. That’s all in the past. Nonetheless, the island has known others: little French Whites, enlisted men, black merchandise dumped in the plantations, penniless Germans from grimy Hamburg, surplus Italians from New York’s overflow. Everyone has been here. Yet despite the colour of their skin, Jews and other Levantines are regarded differently. We marry among ourselves and enlarge our shops.

  The dusty serenity of Gonaïves catches me in the throat. As a child I wanted to claim I belonged here. My family made it their solemn duty to see that I did not form any lasting attachment to the place. Their lives were spent waiting for a promised land somewhere in the world. Despite the existence of the State of Israel, my family kept putting down roots along the road. And I have no right to get other ideas. But it does not alter the fact that we have been here for almost a century, that I have played football on all the town’s makeshift pitches that haven’t been ruined. More and more I get the impression of having entered the adult world while closing the door on my childhood. My years of belonging de facto to a community of children swarming through the peaceful main streets have no connection with the reality of being a shopkeeper on holiday accidentally, although technically out-of-work.

 
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