Monday, 28 June 2021

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, trans Anna Moschovakis

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“Temporary madness in war is bravery’s sister.”

At Night All Blood Is Black is the English-language title of Frère d'âme (lit, “the brother of my soul”), a novel by the French author of Senegalese extraction, David Diop. With his English translator Anna Moschovakis, Diop won the 2021 International Booker Prize for this – the first French-language novelist to do so.

Set in the trenches of the First World War, the novel reveals the terrible damage war can wreck on the human mind – as well as reminding us that soldiers from colonised Africa (“chocolats” in the French slang of the time) were fighting and dying alongside white soldiers (“toubabs”).

Alfa Ndiaye has witnessed the death of his childhood friend, “my more-than brother”, Mandemba Diop. Mandemba died in agony, his guts spilling out over no-man’s land, but Alfa could not bring himself to do as his friend begged him and slit his throat to put him out of his agony. His guilt at his failure to do so turns him into a kind of avenging spirit, haunting the battlefields and inflicting on the German soldiers “the blue-eyed enemy from the other side” what they inflicted on Mandemba.

Diop uses patterns and tropes of African storytelling in the structure of the novel – patterns that are also reminiscent of Old English sagas like Beowolf. Certain phrases repeat over and over again like the beat of a drum. (God’s truth … my more than brother … I, Alfa Ndiaye, son of the old man…) And Alfa’s feats, at first legendary, slowly turn him from hero in the eyes of his fellow soldiers, into a madman or perhaps a sorcerer.

Alfa’s memories of growing up in Senegal with Mandemba also touch on the impact of colonialism on Africa, as village elders are pressured to turn from subsistence farming to cash crops, leaving them dependent on outside buyers into order to feed their families.

Diop, and his translator, use extraordinarily beautiful language to paint a picture of the extreme ugliness of war. Alfa believes he betrayed his friend, but in truth, he, like the soldiers around him, have been betrayed by those who led them into war and who use them as human sacrifices in the interminable futility of trench warfare.

There have been so many novels set in those First World War trenches, that to write something new and unique is an extraordinary achievement. Diop may very well have done just that.

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

Avoid If You Dislike:
Graphic descriptions of war and war wounds

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of mint tea

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, In Translation

Buy This Book Here

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