At Night All Blood is Black: All that war leaves behind
At Night All Blood Is Black (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020; transl. Anna Moschovakis), shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize, is a slender, vivid, wildly-imagined novella on the lives fractured by colonisation and war, the second novel by the France-based Senegalese author David Diop. Less novella and more continuous prose-poem, the book loops and curls, with several refrains that delight and, in time, frighten. "... I know, I understand, I shouldn't have done it. I, Alfa Ndiaye, son of the old, old man, I understand, I shouldn't have. God's truth, now I know", the story begins. Its narrator—and you will hear his name often—is a World War I-era Senegalese soldier, forced into a battle several times removed from his own reality. What occurs before the very first page of the story is the death of his childhood friend, Mademba Diop, who dies slowly in his hands, pleading, ultimately in vain, for Alfa to take his life for him. Regrets pile up over the pages and, coupled with the traumas of war, coalesce into a broken state of being for the young man—who thinks only of the "more-than-brother" he has lost.
In the book's epigraph, a quote reads "I am two simultaneous voices, one long, the other short". The line is taken from Cheikh Hamidou Kane's seminal Ambiguous Adventure (Melville House, 1961), a novel hailed by luminaries like Chinua Achebe as one of the greats of African literature. Two things are indeed often one much throughout At Night All Blood Is Black, and not only is this present in Alfa and Mademba's relationship, but in the book itself; entwined intrinsically with the past, tropes of canonical African literature manifest itself in this modern French novel. One can find here the classic idiosyncrasies of African stories—the charms, the wisdoms—most noticeably in the characterisation of Alfa, who resembles heroic, boastful narrators like The Palm-Wine Drinkard's (Faber, 1952), who are casually able to perform fantastical feats without a second thought.
The matter-of-fact nature of the narration lends the book an overarching element of naivety and simplicity. It is, after all, a basic necessity that is robbed from our central characters, at a most impressionable age, too. But it is the same childlike directness that makes descriptions of entrails, disfigurements, and the war's gore all the more real, and all the more unbearable. The narration hiccups more and more as the chapters roll on, repeating, rhythmically almost, its refrains of "God's truth" and "I know, I understand", and a myriad of phrases that are repeated in full.
The wonder of this novel is not that it sticks to its general conceits, but that it fleshes out for us its characters and their world. When the story shifts further from the present and deeper into the past, the momentum never stalls. New plotlines, new mysteries, and new themes keep this other half well in motion, and we meet the families and friends left behind in a world the two characters couldn't wait to escape. We learn of the one girl both boys loved, we hear of Alfa's mother, missing for years, we learn of the lives that were ahead of Alfa and Mademba. While the subject of war is the pivot in the middle, there is much more to unpack than just the blood and viscera strewn on the earth in its opening chapters. The novel was, in fact, titled Frère d'âme ("Soul brother"), in the French original—a more fitting title, though thank heavens it didn't carry over.
In the background of the story, left usually as incidental happenings, are the sharp, protruding edges of colonisation, racism, societal conceptions of masculinity, and so much more. The narrator couldn't care less for most of the above, as he grieves in all the wrong ways, busying himself with recollections, recantations, and amputations—since his friend's death, Alfa sneaks out every night and returns to the trenches with the severed hand of a German soldier. "If I had been then what I've become today, I would have killed him the first time he asked, his head turned toward me, his left hand in my right. God's truth, if I'd already become then what I am now, I would have slaughtered him like a sacrificial sheep, out of friendship".
Mehrul Bari S Chowdhury is a writer, poet, and artist. His work has appeared in Kitaab, Sortes Magazine, and Marías at Sampaguitas, among others. He is currently the intern at Daily Star Books.