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from the November 2020 issue

A Bereaved Soldier Looks for Revenge in David Diop’s Disturbing ‘At Night All Blood is Black’

Reviewed by Martha Anne Toll

Via a forceful monologue, Diop's novel creates a tale of revenge with biblical overtones as it looks at the relatively little-known story of Senegalese riflemen fighting in the French army in the First World War.

David Diop’s new novel, At Night All Blood is Black (tr. Anna Moschovakis), combines a war story with allegory and myth. In under 150 pages, the book engages biblical tropes as it takes readers to the bloody trenches of World War I through the troubled account of a Senegalese soldier fighting in the French army. The result is a warning against war and its savage consequences. The book delves into the brutal details of WWI and colonial domination, invoking canonical texts against a world that is anarchic, violent, and surreal.  

Diop was born in Paris and raised in Senegal. He lives in France and serves as head of the arts, languages, and literature department at the University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour, where his specialties include eighteenth-century French literature and the study of European representations of Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

At Night All Blood is Black is narrated by Alfa Ndiaye, who has enlisted in the French army in WWI to fight as a Chocolat, as recruits from the African colonies were called, alongside white French soldiers. His “more-than-brother,” Mademba Diop, joins him, and is mortally wounded during battle. 

As Mademba lies with his guts spilling out “like a sheep that has been ritually dismembered after the sacrifice,” he implores Alfa to slit his throat and end the pain. Three times Mademba asks, and three times Alfa refuses. This reference to Jesus’ imprecation during the Last Supper that Peter would thrice deny him, makes what follows only more ironic.

Alfa carries Mademba’s dead body back over the battlefield, horrified with himself for having chosen to honor the laws of his ancestors, which prohibit mercy killing. He judges his failure to act as an abandonment for which he must redeem himself.

Using language that conflates spirituality and sexuality with grisly battle imagery, Alfa’s story descends into a hellscape. As Alfa returns to his comrades, the trench looks to him as “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.”

Mademba Diop shares the author’s family name. By making this choice, author David Diop hovers over the text, binding the two “more-than-brothers,” adding freight to Mademba’s death and its repercussions for Alfa. Mademba’s name is a nod to parenté à plaisanterie (kinship jokes), a custom in parts of Central and West Africa in which certain ethnicities or regional groups engage in playful teasing and taunting between families to tighten kinship bonds. 

To atone for failing Mademba, Alfa begins hurling himself at the enemy, slicing the back of his opponent’s knees with a machete, dragging him into no-man’s-land, and waiting for him to awaken. Alfa looks into his blue eyes, where he sees not just panic but the view the enemy has been taught to have of Africans—an image of death, savagery, rape, and cannibalism. Alfa then disembowels him, watching his blue eyes dim. In his words, he “cleanly” and “humanely” slits the enemies’ throat. This language connotes the opposite of what he is doing; he cloaks his ongoing murders as a mission of morality and justice. “At night all blood is black,” he remarks.

For each of his victims, Alfa brings back a hand as booty. Initially, his trenchmates proclaim him a hero, but after he delivers his fourth hand, they begin to fear him. The Chocolat soldiers whisper that Alfa is a dëmm, “a devourer of souls,” and the white soldiers agree. Alfa sees rumor chasing him “like a little slut.” He calls rumor “a shameless woman with her legs spread, her ass in the air.” As Alfa becomes increasingly violent, his metaphors of sexual violence become more frequent. The stereotypes he sees in the enemy’s eyes transform to action, which he narrates with the imprimatur of righteous indignation. Readers are forced to grapple with Alfa’s motives for revenge, to ask why Alfa acts as he does. In his furious reversal of right and wrong, Alfa demands an accounting of colonial oppression and its fallout.

Alfa is a madman, but so too the world is mad. He takes readers on a vertiginous tour of war and home, swinging between reporting that feels at once accurate and delusional. His verbal tic, “God’s truth,” asserts credibility for an unreliable narrator who is far from credible.

The incredible lies not in the actions Alfa describes, gruesome though they are, but in Alfa’s chilling interpretations. We meet his psychiatrist, presumably supplied by French judicial authorities to test his sanity. He provides a dizzying and uncomfortable account of his first sexual experience and describes his own crimes—including rape—with dispassion.

According to Alfa, “each thing is a double,” a theme that is a through line of the book, beyond his relationship with his “more-than-brother” Mademba. Alfa’s mother, the only daughter of an itinerant herder and Alfa’s father’s fourth and final wife, is “a source of joy and then of pain.” She comes to love his father as her opposite: “He was as old as an immutable landscape, she was young like the changing sky.” When Alfa is nine, his father urges her to go in search of her lost family. “We never abandon those who gave us life,” she tells Alfa, then abandons him.

As the book comes to a close, an omniscient figure makes a set of grave pronouncements: 

I empty skulls and bodies… I am assassin and judge… I am innocent and guilty. I am the beginning and the end. I am the creator and the destroyer. I am double.

This language, invoking Alpha and Omega, resonates with the protagonist’s name and recalls the Book of Revelation. 

At Night All Blood is Black is translated with economy and sensitivity by poet and translator Anna Moschovakis, who is particularly successful at rendering Alfa’s feelings of foreign-ness into English. She declines to translate words such as “Toubab,” a Wolof word used in Senegal and elsewhere to designate a white person of European descent. 

In the end, translation itself becomes a subject:

To translate is never simple. To translate is to betray the borders, it’s to cheat, it’s to trade one sentence for another.

What and who is being translated, and by whom? Is it the man society deems mad, who may in fact speak the truth? Is it the way in which the African views the white man? Or, most important, how the white man translates the African into a monolithic image of brutality, an image that begets violence and lasting damage? Diop’s novel poses these questions, with the stark implication that the white man’s destruction runs so deep that it destroys not only whole societies but also humanity itself.

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