Reviewed by Swetha Regunathan
Good things rarely happen in alleys. They are the sites of illicit exchange—of violence and unsavory trafficking. In Mauricio Segura's Black Alley, set in the Cote-des-Neiges section of Montreal, exchanges are often brief and heated. A tauntingly raised middle finger to a rival ethnic gang may shatter the precarious peace, and teenage love offers refuge from the inexhaustible feuding played out on the streets. But Segura’s novel veers from the generic bounds of the immigrant tale. Originally published in French in 1998, Black Alley paints a complex picture of race relations in Montreal. Addressing a crowd of rowdy students at an assembly, a principal cites a recent spate of ethnic tension at the high school. “The important thing,” we are told by the principal, “is that there are no Italians, no Haitians, no Latinos, no Jews, no Asians, not even Quebecois.” In his eyes, those “hungry for knowledge,” those ready to turn against identity politics and in turn, ready to strive for upward mobility, will win. However, this promise of identity erasure—the vanishing act of multicultural assimilation—never quite delivers. Childhood friendship is tested by gang allegiances and rivalries formed along ethnic lines.
The novel centers on one such friendship between Cleo, the son of Haitian immigrants, and Marcelo, the son of Chilean refugees. Once united by their success on the track team, the two boys find themselves pulled in different directions as teenagers. The arc of the immigrant story here is familiar; growing up means growing into a chosen affiliation. But Black Alley is set apart by Segura's narrative choices. Second-person narration and the present tense invoke an urgent complicity rarely seen in other works about racial tensions, multiculturalism, and the immigrant experience. One might recall the intersection of violence and corruption with diasporic identity in Joseph O'Neill's recent novel, Netherland. In both works, gang (or mob) allegiances carve a site of resistance against the majority culture. But Segura asks his readers to do a bit more. The novel's narrative “you” is not merely Marcelo; we readers, too, are hailed as bystanders and unwitting participants. If Black Alley, then, is something of a multicultural “action” novel, it is only made more so by the clarity of its central metaphor—the footrace. In the fifth grade, teammates on the track, Marcelo and Cleo clinch the fifty-meter relay to become the fastest boys in Montreal. But here, racing stands for social mobility itself, and we recognize that the world in which Cleo and Marcelo live urges them to race toward the continually receding finish line of assimilation. It is only when people fall behind, or out of the race altogether that something more human begins to emerge.
Slurs and racist jokes are both quotidian and exceptional in the novel, used as dinner conversation pieces, incitements to violence, or purely as markers for difference. “Why did so many Black men die during the Vietnam war?” CB, one of the members of the Bad Boy gang, asks a group of Haitians and Latinos. “When they were getting bombed and the general would say ‘Get down,’ the Blacks would all start to dance instead of lying down on the ground,” he concludes. After both groups dissolve into laughter—the Latinos more tentatively than the Haitians—CB confronts the Latinos about their true motives for participating in the joke. “What? You were laughing at us?” he asks. “You didn’t pass the test!” CB affirms, ordering his lackeys to beat up the guilty party.
But perhaps the Biblical epigraph with which Segura opens his novel is most revealing. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” The mention of Babel affirms the cycle of ethnic enmity and violence in the novel, its inescapable historical precedent and its seemingly permanent place in the world of human relations. In scripting this new Babel through a patchwork patois of Spanish (and Spanglish), Creole, and other languages commonly heard in the Cote-des-Neiges, Segura captures the miscommunications and substitutions often forged among communities in diaspora or refuge. And while his strength as a social commentator may lie in his careful attention to the anxieties of adolescents in minority groups, Segura's greatest strength as a novelist lies in his tightly focused narration—one whose scope seems as limited as the prospect for racial reconciliation. As we listen in on the private conversations of Latino, Chilean, and Haitian families, watch the ominous seduction of young Vietnamese girls, and cringe at the recurrent episodes of racial profiling carried out by the police, we realize the full extent to which the network of prejudice in contemporary multicultural societies is nothing more than the passing of a baton, a race dependent on competitors, a violence brewing in a dark alley when no one is watching.
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