At Night All Blood is Black

At Night All Blood is Black is French / Senegalese writer David Diop’s first novel to be translated into English, by Anna Moschovakis, it’s more dramatic title perhaps a result of the different connotations of Frère d’âme (Soul Brother) in English. The original title is more revealing, however, as the central relationship of the novel is between two “more-than-brothers”, Alfa, our narrator, and Mademba, who have left Senegal to fight for France in the trenches of the First World War. The novel opens with Mademba wounded and dying, and Alfa, for what he now calls “mistaken thoughts”, refusing to kill him quickly:

“God’s truth, I let Mademba cry like a small child, the third time he begged me to finish him off, pissing himself, his right hand groping at the ground to gather his scattered guts, slimy as freshwater snakes.”

Alfa becomes obsessed with taking revenge on the German soldiers in the trenches opposite. When the whistle signals that an attack is over, rather than returning to the French side, he waits, covered in mud, playing dead, until an enemy appears, thinking the danger is over. Then he not only kills the unsuspecting soldier in the same manner in which Mademba died, but severs the hand in which he is holding his rifle to take back with him:

“I returned late, because I would bring trophies back to the trench. I brought back the spoils of a savage war.”

He feels guilty not simply at his refusal to end his friend’s suffering, but also because he blames himself for his death. On the day of the attack, they are joking with each other about their family totems – Alfa’s is a lion, Mademba’s a peacock, which Alfa calls “an arrogant fowl”.

“And that’s why he left before the others, why he shot out of the earth shrieking toward the enemy on the other side, to show us, me and the trench, that he was not a braggart, that he was brave… It’s because of totems, because of our joking relationship and because of me that Medemba Diop was disembowelled by a half-dead, blue-eyed enemy on that day.”

At first his fellow soldiers are pleased with his bravery and daring but after the fourth hand this changes and they begin to avoid him: “God’s truth, I became untouchable.” Diop uses this to make a more general comment in war: the temporary madness which allows soldiers to go into battle is admired, but anything more permanent is less welcome. Soldiers, Alfa argues:

“…play at being mad, perform madness so that they can calmly throw themselves in front of the bullets of the enemy on the other side… but when you seem crazy all the time…that’s when you make people afraid, even your war brothers.”

When Alfa is asked to rest behind the lines it is really a plea for him to stop taking his trophies, which the other soldiers now believe are unlucky. Placing Alfa’s ‘savagery’ alongside the butchery of the war makes explicit that his actions are viewed through his African origins, alongside which there is a pretence that the rules of battle allow the fighting to remain ’civilised’. When he is in the rear, Alfa thinks of his life in Senegal, and in particular his relationship with a woman there, forbidden by the rules of his people. This feeds into the novel’s startling conclusion but leaves the two halves of the novel superficially disconnected, though perhaps united in their duality: the first focusing on death the second on sex. Alfa frequently refers to the trenches in sexual terms:

“Seen from a distance our trench looked to me like the slightly parted lips of an immense woman’s sex. A woman open, offering herself to war, to the bombshells and to us, the soldiers.”

Both war and sex are seen as doorways into manhood by Alfa, and Diop succeeds in presenting these largely unfiltered in a narrative that makes little concession to European sensibilities, instead providing the context of a European setting already enshrined in literature. This is partly down to voice: though Diop writes in French he clearly does not write in standard French, and translator Anna Moschovakis conveys Alfa’s voice admirably in English through rhythm and repetition. This, to a large extent, grants the narrative its power.

At Night All Blood is Black presents us with a different view of the First World War, but rather than a worthy attempt to convey the experience of African soldiers what we have is a much narrower, but therefore more powerful, viewpoint, embedded in the language of its telling. Personally, I felt the novel was stronger when Alfa was in the front line, and the conclusion will, I feel, leave readers divided, but Diop does succeed in taking the historical novel and making it something new and unexpected, vibrating with life, and death.

2 Responses to “At Night All Blood is Black”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s interesting to see the First World War through a slightly different lens, more than a hundred years on. I wonder if there is any link between the author and the French/Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop? You may have seen it already, but if not I would thoroughly recommend her film, Atlantics, available to view on Netflix. It’s a difficult one to describe as it relies so much on atmosphere and mood, but I found it very poetic.

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