A punch in the stomach is the best way to describe International Booker Prize 2021 winning At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. We’re dropped right onto a WW1 battlefield where the narrator watches his adopted ‘more-than-brother’ Mademba as he dies a violent, agonising death. The ‘I’ is Alfa, a Senegalese soldier fighting on behalf of France in a war that makes even less sense to him that the ‘blue-eyed’ French soldiers. When war gets the better of him, the racist stereotype of the black man as a savage rears its ugly head.
As he lies dying, Mademba begs Alfa to end his suffering but faced by the impossible moral dilemma, he refuses, a decision that will haunt him. Determined to revenge Mademba’s death, Alfa finds a gruesome way. Soon he’s starts losing his mind and the road from brave soldier to ‘evil sorcerer’ and ‘devourer of souls’ is short.
Yes, I understood, God’s truth, that on the battlefield they wanted only fleeting madness, Madmen of rage, madmen of pain, furious madmen, but temporary ones. No continuous madmen.
Diop’s prose is simple with frequent repetitions, hammering in the message of the brutality and senselessness of the war, especially in the case of a Senegalese young man who doesn’t even speak the language of the country he’s fighting for. Mixed in are folklore and stories told in the oral tradition of West Africa. A dark, stark and unforgettable read.
At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop is translated by Anna Moschovakis published by Pushkin Press, 145 pages.