Reading Through the Awards: At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

August 19, 2021

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black, winner of the 2021 International Booker Prize, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “Alfa Ndiaye is a Senegalese man who, never before having left his village, finds himself fighting as a so-called “Chocolat” soldier with the French army during World War I. When his friend Mademba Diop, in the same regiment, is seriously injured in battle, Diop begs Alfa to kill him and spare him the pain of a long and agonizing death in No Man’s Land.

Unable to commit this mercy killing, madness creeps into Alfa’s mind as he comes to see this refusal as a cruel moment of cowardice. Anxious to avenge the death of his friend and find forgiveness for himself, he begins a macabre ritual: every night he sneaks across enemy lines to find and murder a blue-eyed German soldier, and every night he returns to base, unharmed, with the German’s severed hand. At first his comrades look at Alfa’s deeds with admiration, but soon rumors begin to circulate that this super soldier isn’t a hero, but a sorcerer, a soul-eater. Plans are hatched to get Alfa away from the front, and to separate him from his growing collection of hands, but how does one reason with a demon, and how far will Alfa go to make amends to his dead friend?”

David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black chronicles the psychological spiraling of Alfa Ndiyae, a Senegalese soldier recruited to fight alongside the French army in World War I, after he is unable to perform a mercy killing to end the suffering of his childhood friend and fellow soldier. In refusing to honor his friend’s last wish, Ndiyae’s guilt compels him to make amends, his bloody methods first gaining pride from his French captain and trenchmates, but later giving way to fear when they believe he’s become unhinged.

Throughout the book, Ndiyae muses on the brutality of war and racism he faces, as well as the expectation thrust upon him to be a savage who complies with his commanding officer’s orders. On a surface level, this retraces familiar grounds of any war story, but as Ndiyae draws away from the trenches and delves into his own history, family, and childhood, it’s an overt reminder that, at least in Western literature, the stories of people who fought and died in wars waged by their colonial invaders have gone unheard.

And even when they are heard, there’s still a distance. It isn’t just Ndiyae’s increasingly unreliable narration driving the gap—he also doesn’t speak much French, the original language of this book. With this reveal, his tendency to repeat phrases, images, and metaphors are no longer just indications of madness, but also perhaps a sign of his struggle to express himself to outsiders in a language that’s hard for him to be precise. Ndiyae’s lack of proficiency forces readers to reevaluate the story, both what they’ve already read and what’s to come, with clearer understanding only obtained by going back to the first page, armed with this new knowledge, to start again.

June Sham

David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black works to show its readers how the things that we are most afraid of, the things that most intensely trouble us, become the things that we are most violently forced to confront. Alfa Ndiaye, ashamed of his inability to kill his suffering and fatally wounded friend, drives himself towards madness in the pursuit of redemption. A madness that, however feral and violent, reveals Alfa’s human heart; a madness that lends further insight into the mysterious dualities that motivate our most noble and horrifying actions and thoughts.

Diop writes with a deceptively nuanced style. Alfa’s thoughts seem at first to be offered without filter, nearly stream-of-consciousness, with details given and repeated at will. But what at first feels like sheer repetition offers an incremental deepening of idea, a building of symbol and pattern. The novel feels diaristic, nearly epistolary, and allows for a deep relationship between speaker and reader. Diop creates an earnest and sensitive portrayal of Alfa Ndiaye that coerces us to see him as friend when he is killer, as justified when his actions defy our sense of morality.

This is a novel that revels in opposition and duality, that urges readers to search for that crucial, thin crack of light that lies between our often polarizing understanding of the world.

Joshua Olivier

David Diop’s novel, At Night All Blood is Black takes place during World War I in No Man’s Land—a place wherein French Army soldiers, obeying their captain’s whistles, jump from their trenches and towards their enemies. However, while the novel appears as if it could be told chronologically (as histories and accounts of war generally do), it becomes largely apparent that not only will the novel be told out of order, it will circle, repeat, and fixate on the trauma of a very specific event in the narrator’s life—the death of Mademba, the narrator’s “more-than-brother” childhood friend.

In the novel’s opening pages, the narrator Alfa Ndiaye recounts how his childhood friend, Mademba, spent his last moments disemboweled on the battlefield. In the novel’s opening pages, Diop’s adept presentation of inner thought and repetition magnify the agony in which Alfa processed Mademba’s pleas to be mercifully killed. Ultimately, Alfa found himself not able to grant his friend’s final wish. As a result, the regret over his one inaction becomes tragically recognizable in Alfa’s actions moving forward, including the seemingly nonsensical ritual he takes on after Mademba’s death—the act of severing and bringing back to the base, every night, a severed hand from the “blue-eyed” enemy.

At Night All Blood is Black is a thematically compelling and haunting story of how one can descend into madness trying to live fearlessly in war. It is a story not without nuance as Diop is able to say a lot about war, despite the novel’s minimal amount of characters and plot points, because Alfa’s views on war are often, somehow, both steady and ever changing even as he’s on the brink of mental collapse. Over the course of his novel, Diop manifests for the reader a narrator with traumas that have fully affected his actions, thoughts, and how he sees himself and believes others see him.

Angelica Colot

Curated by Brandon Williams


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