A review of At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
It is unfair to write this without having read the entire shortlist, but At Night All Blood is Black has serious International Booker Prize-winning potential. David Diop’s novel, in translation by Anna Moschovakis, is a short, sharp and utterly mesmerising work of literature that is as painful as it is compelling to read, a book that deals unflinchingly with madness and war, but also – with heartbreaking tenderness – with love and the untrammelled hopefulness of youth. Written in urgent yet lyrical prose that makes the events it describes both horrifyingly vivid and hard to turn away from, At Night All Blood is Black is the darkest and most revealing of fever dreams, a novel that gives just as much as it demands of its reader.
Born in France and brought up in Senegal, David Diop has chosen for this, his second novel, to tell one of the many unheard stories of the First World War – that of the Senegalese soldiers who fought in the trenches of Europe. Around 135,000 members of the Senegalese Tirailleurs, a French infantry corps composed of men recruited from Senegal and across sub-Saharan Africa, fought in Europe between 1914 and 1918; of these, around 30,000 lost their lives. None of these statistics are given in At Night All Blood is Black, which relies instead on a powerful narrative voice to tell a story in which the implications are just as important as the details, and which will hopefully inspire the reader to engage with this long-buried history.
From its opening pages, the novel is tough going – but all the more important for that. Alfa, the first-person narrator, is a young soldier caught in the midst of trench warfare, mourning the recent devastating loss of his ‘more-than-brother’ Mademba. The descriptions of Mademba’s death are immediate and graphic: lying fatally wounded in a shell hole, Mademba begged Alfa to slit his throat, but Alfa ‘couldn’t cut the barbed wire of his suffering’. Raw with grief and later blaming himself for not having spared his friend a prolonged, agonising death, Alfa replays this scene again and again and begins to take his revenge on ‘the enemy from the other side’, men whom he makes pay for Mademba’s suffering by torturing and killing them, then cutting off a hand to keep as a form of talisman. The visceral descriptions of this butchery are at times stomach turning, yet Alfa’s behaviour is hard to condemn: instead, it follows the cruel logic of war, and is entirely understandable thanks to the intimate narrative perspective. Rather than watching what happens to Alfa, we find ourselves inside his slowly loosening mind – a position that becomes all the more harrowing as the novel progresses.
Though the mentality of war is important, the body – and particularly its most delicate parts: eyes, genitals, intestines – is a major focus of the novel, and becomes the theme that links humans and the earth they are fighting upon. Just as Mademba’s guts spill from his stomach, so too do the soldiers come ‘leaping from the earth’s hot entrails’ each time the captain blows the whistle to signal a new attack. But while the earth may seem to be a form of enemy – the mud is an untiring opponent – it is the soldiers’ bodies (and then, eventually, minds) that ultimately betray them. Alfa’s first hand trophy begins to rot; a small band of soldiers obey their primal fear instinct and refuse to fight, while the others are encouraged to become animal-like, savage in their ferocity towards the enemy but then robotic in their processing of each battle: ‘on the battlefield they wanted only fleeting madness [. . .] As soon as the fighting ends, we’re to file away our rage, our pain, and our fury’. Unable to neatly pack away his pain, Alfa becomes first a fearless and much-admired warrior but then, gradually, a figure of whom his fellow soldiers are terrified. ‘I was inhuman’, he states simply. Almost without our noticing it, he has become no longer an individual soldier, but a representation of war itself.
The experience of reading At Night All Blood is Black is made extraordinary by the simple, rhythmic language selected by Diop and masterfully translated by Anna Moschovakis, which, though not rhyming, makes the novel read something like a poem, providing an internal pulse that soon has the reader entirely under its spell. Once begun, it is almost impossible to put aside, and the reader becomes locked in the unwinding spiral of Alfa’s mind – an unravelling that begins slowly, but spins faster and faster until the hallucinatory, breath-taking ending (which involves a woman and, it has to be said, is in many ways more distressing than all that went before). This linguistic current is helped along by small repeated motifs – Alfa has a tendency to pepper his story with the words ‘God’s truth’, and to return to certain images such as the corporeality of the earth or fondly remembered scenes from the past. These latter in particular provide a small element of relief from the otherwise unrelenting horrors of the trenches, but contain their own kind of devastation: we know they are memories of a life – and mindset – no longer to be recovered. Writing of his elderly father, Alfa describes him as ‘a soldier of everyday life’. Caught up in the pain of his story, I found myself wishing fervently that he too could have been consigned to this fate.
Though at times it seems fragmented – brief flashes of gunfire in the night – At Night All Blood is Black is all consuming, a breathless eruption of pain and rage. In translation, these emotions are clear and powerful: Anna Moschovakis has dug right to the heart of the novel, doing far more than simply translating the words as they appear on the surface. Because as much as this book is about the fragility and breaking of humans, both physically and mentally, it is also about strength and about love, about deep bonds of friendship that transcend even death and the madness of conflict. As Alfa so rightly says, ‘each thing carries its opposite within’: this is a novel that is both raging and tender, appalling and mesmerising, horrific and beautiful. The Senegalese Tirailleurs have waited a long time to be heard – the song that David Diop has composed is an elegy of heart-rending proportions, and a defiant scream against the darkness of oblivion.
At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis, is published by Pushkin Press and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.