translated from French by Anna Moschovakis
My two granddads fought in World War One, my maternal granddad in Belgium, my paternal granddad in Iraq (where he died; there’s a Memorial at Basra commemorating him and the other 40,000 casualties of the Mesopotamia campaign). A generation on, my dad fought in World War Two in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. Neither Dad nor Granddad said much about what they’d experienced. I was told not to paint my nails in front of Granddad because the smell of nail polish reminded him of mustard gas. But otherwise? Nothing. Nil. Nada.
Dad was in Eighth Army, a cosmopolitan force with soldiers from many countries including India, pulled into the war because India was a British colony. Britain wasn’t the only European country guilty of Empire-Building: France, Portugal and Spain were all prolific colonisers, although none at the time as extensive as Britain’s.
In At Night All Blood is Black, set in France in World War One, the narrator is from French-colonial Senegal. Alfa Ndiaye is dutifully fighting against France’s German enemies. The story opens with Alfa watching his “more-than-brother” Mademba Diop taking “too long to die”. Mademba, disembowelled by a shell, is suffering an agonisingly slow death “his guts in the air, his insides outside.” He begs Alfa to slit his throat to put an end to his suffering; Alfa refuses because of “the inner voice that commands us all…duty”.
After Mademba dies, Alfa’s mind begins to unravel. He finds himself “free to think whatever I want.” He no longer returns to the trench when a retreat is called, always returning later, after dark, with “a rifle and the severed hand that goes with it”. His trench-mates are pleased at first, never asking what he did to the rest of the body. (“What I didn’t do for my friend I can do for my enemy.”) After the fourth hand they begin to realise something is badly wrong.
The whole book is only 145 pages, more a novella than a novel. David Diop has taken the experiences a man might have in a war – men like my father, my granddads – and condensed them, distilled them. Alfa’s free-fall descent into madness is never going to end well but Diop still manages to pull off an ending that is unpredictable, unsettling, shocking, beyond words.
At Night All Blood is Black is strange and disturbing yet also weirdly hypnotic, largely thanks to Diop’s lyrical writing style. The novel won the 2021 International Booker Prize.
Rating: ** Worth reading