Over 100 years ago Europe was engulfed by the First World War (“The Great War”). The war was so destructive that many profess that it would “end all wars”. However, not even the war’s millions of casualties, the carnage and apocalyptic destruction, ushered the end of the war. The scale of the conflict was so massive that fighters from far-of-lands were recruited and brought to fight for their colonizers in Europe. The Great War’s brutality and global reach were an omen of future wars.
Award-winning author David Diop’s phantasmagorical novel At Night All Blood Is Black, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis, tells the tale of two Senegalese soldiers fighting and dying for France in the Western Front during the Great War. The novel won the International Booker Prize in 2021 for its uncompromising look at a “mind hurtling towards madness, shattered by grief and the horror of war.“
Diop presents war as an event that disfigures, maims, and eviscerates humanity both literally and figuratively. Alfa Ndiaye, the novel’s main character, suffers a devastating trauma. His “more-than-brother” Mademba Diop awaits death in agony. He asks Alfa to ease his suffering, to take mercy on him, and release him from pain. Alfa, in shock, does not fulfill Mademba’s dying wish. Instead, he watches his friend slowly succumb to his injuries.
After the traumatic event, Alfa commits himself to take revenge on the “blue-eyed enemy” that killed his brother. Alfa willing plays the role of the “Chocolat of Black Africa”; a savage negro, cannibal Zulu who leaps bravely into battle with a rifle in his left hand and a machete in his right. By choosing this path he eventually becomes what is described in the novel as a sorcerer soldier, a dëmm: “a devour of people’s insides” who disembowels the enemy and takes their hands as totems. He willingly and knowingly answers Frances’ call to savagery.
Alfa is so proficient in the role that all fear him, even his brothers-in-arms and his superiors. Though Alfa states that he becomes a sorcerer soldier to avenge Mademba, his vengeance comes at the service of the French war effort. Thus, the colonizer asserts inhumanity on the colonized as a means to win the war. Killing becomes a ritual to be performed on the empire’s altar. Masculinity, or better, manliness, pervades throughout. Manliness shares much of the responsibility for the catastrophe that befouls the characters and their world. It is later revealed that the reason why Mademba charged to his “brave” death was to compensate for his perceived weakness as a man.
Racial division and otherness pervade At Night All Blood Is Black. Language enforces the stratification that makes empire possible; blacks and whites, Toubabs (whites living in Africa), and Chocolats (black soldiers), all in their place, one above the other. The characters make these distinctions. Even when there is a coming together between races, as in the case of Alfa’s brief friendship with Jean-Baptiste, a white French soldier, it ends quickly and violently.
There is a great deal of imagery of the naked human body in Diop’s bloodstained novel. It is seen on the battlefield and it is seen in man-made structures like the trenches, excavated land used for protection; a hallmark of the Western Front in Europe during the war. The black body is also prevalent. It is a powerful image that invokes strength but also controversial and unsavory feelings and beliefs. Later in the book, in a bout of madness, Alfa states that “the thickness of my body, its excessive power, can only bring combat to the minds of others, can only bring battle, war, violence, and death. My body causes my body”. Diop’s rumination on the black body, via Alfa elucidates for the reader the preconceived beliefs of the colonizer and how they are internalized by the colonized.
Alfa answers the call of duty, he kills effectively, yet by doing this he becomes a living contradiction. He is a prisoner of his trauma and others’ prejudice. There are scars everywhere in this novel. The earth is scarred, people’s bodies are scarred, minds are scarred. The epic tragedy of war and empire is revealed in these scars. How can a man hope to recover from such trauma?
I was reminded of Lucrecia Martel’s 2017 film Zama, adapted from the novel of the same name written by Argentine novelist Antonio di Benedetto. In this story, the main character, Don Diego de Zama, lives a life of maddening repetition and ritual. A key difference between Zama and Alfa is that Zama appears to be floating in time, dragged by its flowing stream to an eventual endpoint. In At Night All Blood Is Black, Alfa appears to have a higher sense of awareness of his situation even when his mind shatters and reality fades into dreams of the past and what is yet to happen.
Diop’s prose, syntax, and narrative rhythm transported me to the humid tropics of West Africa, a place where I once lived. But the reader does not need to have visited the region to also feel transported. Diop’s writing, and Moschovakis’ translation, transfigures the imagination. At the completion of Diop’s phantasmagorical work, I felt elevated and aware of insights I did not before possess. Diop manages such complexity and a myriad of themes in a short novel that he, too, is a sorcerer – albeit of a more benevolent kind.
In the world presented in At Night All Blood Is Black, everything conjures traumatic memories; life is not lived, it is survived. The price of living in the world is suffering. Horrible events shape and eventually create man. As the Fula proverb goes “Until a man is dead, he is not yet created.” Take that as you will.
The 2021 International Booker Prize | The Booker Prizes. (2021).
Martel, Lucrecia. Zama. 2017.