Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
I started reading my way through the Man Booker International shortlist, beginning with At Night All Blood is Black by Senegalese-French writer David Diop, first published in French in 2018 and published in English translation in 2020. I have noticed that my reviews always seem to focus on serious and upsetting topics, and I am trying to lighten up my blog posts a bit … but, yeah, this book is not going to do that.
Rather, it is a short, sharp shock of a novel, historical fiction that examines the experience of Alfa, a young Senegalese ‘Chocolat’ soldier fighting for the French during the First World War. The beautifully translated prose is incantatory and looping, as Alfa berates himself for the events that lead to the death of Mademba, his “more-than-brother”, killed by a soldier described only by the blue colour of his eyes. Alfa struggles with misplaced guilt, and hates himself for his cowardice in refusing to slit his friend’s throat as he lay dying, like a “sacrificial sheep”, instead powerlessly watching his life painfully ebb away over a period of many hours.
The novel is visceral, and the relentless, lucid prose builds up a repetitive rhythm, like the rounds of battle the narrative is set within and between. Alfa’s actions, as he seeks to avenge Mademba, are so brutal and sadistic that they unnerve his fellow soldiers, both white and black.
“…when I returned to our trench the way a mamba slithers back into into its nest after the hunt, they avoided me like the plague. The bad side of my crimes had won out over the good side. The Chocolat soldiers began to whisper that I was a soldier sorcerer, a demm, a devourer of souls, and the white Toubab soldiers were starting to believe them. God’s truth, each thing carries its opposite within. Up to the third hand, I was a war hero, beginning with the fourth I became a dangerous madman, a bloodthirsty savage. God’s truth, that’s how things go, that’s how the world is: each thing is double”
Alfa is sent away from the front to recuperate, and although he does not speak French he seems to be connecting with medical staff, as he works through his memories in drawings: he revisits his past in Senegal, the loss of his mother, the love of his father, his first romance with a local girl. We hope for redemption, but this book is not about redemption.
“I smile at people, they smile back. They can’t hear, when I smile at them, the thundering laughter resounding in my head. Which is lucky, because they’d take me for a lunatic otherwise. It’s the same with the severed hands.”
The prose is shocking and powerful, and the translation feels flawless. I really think this book is outstanding, and would be a worthy winner of the prize.