Our time in Sweden wasn’t without its risks, but I’m afraid the next leg of our International Booker Prize longlist journey will prove to be even more dangerous. Today’s choice takes us back to the trenches of World War I, where we join a very European war as experienced by African soldiers. We’ll be crawling on our stomachs across No Man’s Land, comforting a dying friend and eventually reminiscing during a spell of recovery far behind the front line. One thing I can promise you, though, is that it’s an experience you won’t forget – if only for the souvenirs the protagonist keeps to remember the time by…
At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop
– Pushkin Press, translated by Anna Moschovakis
(digital review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
At Night All Blood is Black takes the reader back to the battlefields of the First World War, but anyone expecting a typical tale of bravery in the trenches is in for a surprise. The story begins with Senegalese soldier Alfa Ndiaye recounting the death of his best friend Mademba Diop, caught off-guard by a German soldier pretending to be dead and brutally stabbed. Alfa stayed with his friend in the middle of No Man’s Land until he finally died, resisting Mademba’s pleas to finish him off and end his suffering.
While he believed he was doing the right thing at the time, Alfa now regrets ignoring his friend’s wishes, and he attempts to atone in the only way he can, by taking revenge upon the enemy. His exploits in battle initially earn him respect from both the Toubab (white) and Chocolat (black) soldiers he fights beside, but this soon turns to fear when they realise that there’s something not quite right about their comrade. You see, he’s far more interested in his personal vendetta than the war itself, and is obsessed with killing and taking souvenirs. What do I mean? Well, let’s just say that he’s the man to ask if you need a hand – he has several spare…
Diop’s book is short, but decidedly not sweet, a war novel told from a different viewpoint. Many readers will perhaps be unaware of the story of African soldiers in the Allied ranks, with the colonial subjects called up to help the mother country in its time of need (as someone who has obtained Australian citizenship, it’s a familiar story), and much of the book examines how black soldiers fared in a very European war. We learn how they are encouraged to embrace their ‘savagery’, being used as shock troops who are generally first over the top. Their size, colour and the use of machetes are meant to strike terror into the heart of the enemy, but Alfa is well aware that in reality they’re cannon fodder:
They will all die without thinking because Captain Armand has said to them, “You, the Chocolats of black Africa, are naturally the bravest of the brave. France admires you and is grateful. The papers talk only of your exploits!” So they love to sprint onto the battlefield to be beautifully massacred while screaming like madmen, regulation rifle in the left hand and savage machete in the right.
pp.14/15 (Pushkin Press, 2020)
It’s not as if they have a choice, though. If they don’t feel like being a hero, well, then the officers will make an example of them in a rather brutal manner.
Of course, this savagery is only tolerated in small doses at the right time, which means that Alfa’s behaviour is just as out of place as refusing to fight:
When I leave the belly of the earth, I am inhuman by choice, I become a little inhuman. Not because the captain commanded me to, but because I have thought it and willed it. When I leap, shrieking, from the earth’s womb, I do not intend to kill multiple enemies from the other side, but to kill just one, in my own way, calmly, deliberately, slowly. (p.17)
His sustained cold rage and surgical attacks on isolated enemy soldiers begin to freak out his own side, and very soon they just want to get him out of there – nobody wants a man like Alfa in their trench.
There’s another side to Diop’s book, though, one involving memories of the past. In between battles, Alfa thinks back to life in his homeland, remembering his mother (and her disappearance) as well as his childhood spent together with Mademba. The two share a bond, making them (as Alfa constantly repeats) more than brothers, and this connection makes the scene on the battlefield even stronger and more poignant.
His memories also introduce a sexual element to the story, in the form of his night of passion with a young woman before leaving for Europe, and sex actually pervades At Night All Blood is Black in a rather unusual (and slightly disturbing) fashion. Diop frequently resorts to the metaphors of women and war with the trenches compared on several occasions to a certain part of a woman’s body (with all the implications that comparison brings). Even when talking about the rumour of his savage behaviour, Alfa chooses to anthropomorphise it as a woman, ready to be used by all:
The rumour spread. It spread, and as it spread it shed its clothes and, eventually, its shame. Well dressed at the beginning, well appointed at the beginning, well outfitted, well medaled, the brazen rumor ended up with her legs spread, her ass in the air.(p.33)
It’s an unusual choice on the part of the writer, and one that some readers may well find unsettling.
However, for the most part, At Night All Blood is Black is a surprisingly enjoyable read. It’s a story narrated rather than written, with Alfa telling his tale, slipping between his experiences in battle (and later resting behind the lines) and his life back in Senegal, to a presumed audience sitting in a circle. Moschovakis does an excellent job of bringing Alfa to life, and his frequent exclamation of ‘God’s truth’ peppers the pages. As confident as he is with his story, though, you’ll sense a gap between what he says and how he feels, and more than a suspicion of trauma.
There’s also one final twist to the novel when the style suddenly changes in the last few chapters, where it becomes slightly less clear who’s talking and what’s happening. As the factual gives way to the lyrical, the narrative begins to break down, and we’re left wondering how much of it all we can take at face value. In fact, by the end, we’re left unsure as to how much of this is Alfa’s story, or whether something else is going on…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I’m still on the fence here. I quite enjoyed Diop’s book to start with, but I felt it lacked a little something to make it stand out. Ironically, when that little something arrived in the form of the tangled last few chapters, where the main story seemed to morph into something else, I actually didn’t like it! I suspect this one will be mid-table in my list, and it’ll take a few more poor choices to keep it in my top six.
Will it make the shortlist?
Definitely a possibility. It’s a book that many online reviewers have praised, and the consensus seems to be the opposite to my opinion, with many praising the turn the book takes, believing it adds something to the story. Will the judges agree? Wouldn’t surprise me at all.
After some time on the battlefield, we’re in need of a break, so it’s a good job that our next stop involves a getaway – of sorts. I have to warn you, though, that the facilities aren’t that great, and you definitely can’t trust the man renting us the accommodation. Still, a bit of sun will do us good, so all together now: “We’re all going on a summer holiday, No more worries for a week or two”…