WThe entry of a grand prize can be bittersweet for a writer: now most of the people who read your book will have sky-high expectations – higher, in fact, than the judges who awarded the prize. And by the time it won the International Booker Prize earlier this month, David Diop’s second novel At night all the blood It is black (translated from French by Anna Moschovakis) had already received awards in France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United States. Could this be … the best book? forever?
In fact, it is possible at first to be disappointed in Diop’s novel. It begins forcefully but repetitively, hammering the same points over and over again in the narrative of Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier in WWI. It has, “the truth of God”, a horror story to share. It involves the escalation of violence – it has begun to cut off the hands of the dead German troops (“my fellow trenchmen began to fear me after the fourth hand”) – and their descent into madness. “Crazy people fear nothing. Others […] play to be angry. “Soon, it is believed to be a stupid, a “devourer of souls”, and despised by his fellow soldiers.
The madness is caused or accelerated because Ndiaye has to see his childhood friend Mademba Diop, “my more than brother”, die alongside him, gutted and begging that Ndiaye kill him. He refuses, then is consumed with guilt, just as he felt guilty about helping Diop get in shape to start the fight. (In this regard, the original French title Soul brother, which translates to something like Soul Brother, seems more appropriate than the one we have).
With all the reiteration of the same points in the same words, the reader begins to feel quite shocked as well, but just when you’re thinking, “Keep going,” it does. In the second half of this slim book, we see where Ndiaye came from and where her “madness” leads, and we find that she speaks little French, so her narrative is necessarily restricted and repetitive. The forcefulness is not just a representation of your mind but a substitute for the subtlety that eludes you.
When Ndiaye is removed from front-line service and taken to the hospital (accompanied, of course, by severed German hands), the narrative begins to unravel even further. His corrupted mind delights in his own physique – “God’s truth, I know I’m handsome” – and misinterprets his nurse’s attention: “He didn’t need to speak French to understand the language of Mademoiselle François’s eyes.” This can only lead in a tragic direction. As Ndiaye’s own identity begins to crack and slip, the brilliance of David Diop’s vanity becomes clear and the reader must reconsider the story both backwards and forwards. That is why it has attracted so many award juries: it rewards rereading, which recasts the violent opening chapters in a new, even darker light. If a book’s measure of success is to be very different from anything else, then At night all the blood It is black it deserves the bouquets and the trumpets after all.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism