The Book Alfa
The moral conflict of a soldier
When, in the late 1960s, a German translation of one volume of the Alpha cycle was published, Samuel Beckett remarked that, stylistically, this was the best book he had read that year. The Alpha cycle is, indeed, one of the most overwhelming reading experiences in postwar literature. It owes its legendary status to Michiels’ unsurpassed use of language.
The author’s crystal clear, almost primitive language has been a source of inspiration for many a young writer. The first two parts in particular, The Book Alpha (1963) and Orchis Militaris (1968), have still lost nothing of their punch more than thirty years after publication.
This was evident in 2003, when, at a literature and music festival in Antwerp, Michiels gave an emotional rendering of his texts to an audience of several thousand young people. What, for years, had been dismissed as a ‘difficult experiment’, was now seducing a new generation of readers. This comeback had already been heralded ten years ago in former Yugoslavia, where four of Michiels’ books were published in the space of two years. ‘It seems that those in a state of extreme moral destitution pick up the signals from my books with extraordinary clarity,’ was how Michiels explained the phenomenon in an interview.
This ‘moral destitution’ applies first and foremost to The Book Alpha, in which existential uncertainty, feelings of guilt and the search for an individual identity are central themes. The book recounts the story of a soldier on guard, under threat of imminent war. The war is used primarily as a concept reflecting the protagonist’s own precarious situation.
In a style and composition based on repetition, recapitulation and litanies, Michiels gives shape to uncertainty. The soldier is torn between conflicting feelings and desires : civilian life or the barracks, discipline or freedom, intuition or duty? During this chaos of opposites he reflects on his past life. A stampede of associations unearths a jumble of childhood memories and loves lost and longed for. From these snippets and snapshots in time emerge a mental portrait of someone who, thrown backwards and forwards between indecision and resistance, must continue to live on in uncertainty.