Bleak, brooding and breathtaking, David Diop’s 2021 International Booker Prize Winning work is certainly not for the faint hearted. Set in the trenches of World War I, “At Night All Blood Is Black” has a Senegalese tirailleur (foot soldier) narrating in a spine chilling matter of fact manner, the horrors and heartbreaks of a cathartic war. Alpha Ndiaye and his best friend, (“my more than brother”), Mademba Diop are fighting alongside the French against the might of the Germans. In a horrific turn of events Mademba has his stomach disemboweled by the bayonet of a German soldier, feigning death. With his entrails seeping out, Mademba pleads with Ndiaye to spare him the tarnish of indignity by slitting his throat and thereby putting him out of his unspeakable misery. In spite of Mademba’ s repeated entreaties, Ndiaye refuses to honour the wishes of his writhing, moaning and imploring friend choosing instead to stay with him until Mademba finally sheds his mortal coil. This indescribably tragic episode sends Ndiaye into an extraordinary bout of rage lubricated by guilt and fueled by loss.
Ndiaye begins his descent into an abbey of madness with a systematic exhibition of savagery that puts the fear of God in even his own trench-mates. Venturing with increasing regularity into the ‘no man’s land’ separating the Allied and Axis trenches, Ndiaye sneaks up on his victims, before ritually disemboweling the unfortunate men. However as a measure of atonement for his inability to lend a swift and painless death to Mademba, he slits the throat of his tortured enemy after letting them suffer for just a wee bit. “Then I slit his throat, cleanly, humanely. At night, all blood is black.”
By the time Ndiaye gets his seventh hand, a murky and invisible terror permeates his camp. The inhabitants in his barracks consider him to be a “demm”, a remorseless devourer of souls. His Captain attempts to impart a degree of reluctant wisdom into Ndiaye. “You will content yourself with killing them, not mutilating them. The civilities of war forbid it.” Ndiaye, however, reflecting upon his morbid escapade, concludes that his barbaric acts are nothing but an offshoot of a temporary madness that is an indispensable ally in any conflict. “Temporary madness makes it possible to forget the truth about bullets. Temporary madness, in war, is bravery’s sister.”
Ndiaye is extricated from the frontline and dispatched to a hospital where Dr. Francois a psychiatrist takes Ndiaye under his wings. The narrative in this slim books assumes monumental steam before crescendos to a climax that gives the feeling to the reader of a ghostly chill running down the spine. The simplistic narrative, characterised by repeated phrases, for example, Ndiaye keeps exclaiming “God’s truth” in a metronomic fashion, masks a much deeper import and significance. The almost sinister shades and conflicting mental contours that are revealed towards the end of the book, not only provide a telling insight into the disintegration of Ndiaye as a human being, but also conveys in a startlingly lucid fashion the dominion of racial discrimination in the trenches. The moment, Ndiaye’s Captain, Armand blows the whistle the soldiers are expected to transform into “savages” and charge out of the trench like possessed and shrieking banshees. Brothers and friends, tribes and sects all compete with one another like crazed maniacs to outdo one another in besting the enemy. Bewitched by the snide and selfish exhortations of the colonizer, the colonized become a willing piece of meat to be sacrificed at the altar of ascendancy. “Same rivalry between the Keïtas and the Soumarés. Same thing between the Diallos and the Fayes, the Kanes and the Thiounes, the Dianés, the Kouroumas, the Bèyes, the Fakolis, the Salls, the Diengs, the Secks, the Kas, the Cissés, the Ndours, the Tourés, the Camaras, the Bas, the Falls, the Coulibalys, the Sonkhos, the Sys, the Cissokhos, the Dramés, the Traorés. They will all die without thinking because Captain Armand has said to them, “You, the Chocolats of black Africa, are naturally the bravest of the brave. France admires you and is grateful.”
Even Mademba, being the more industrious of the two, applies to join the war mesmerized by the prospect of a potential emigration to St Louis and an opportunity to carry on his own business. Ndiaye, having moved into Mademba’ s house after losing his mother to slavery, naturally follows his friend. At some point in time in the story, Ndiaye seamlessly blends into Mademba thereby obliterating the difference between the two friends. The coalescing of two souls is complete even though it takes an unsparing conflict and an unavoidable mental degeneration for the process to happen.
Even though set amidst the backdrop of the First World War, Diop’s book transcends time and threads through eras. Discrimination is not the singular or sole prerogative of any age. So long as humanity inhabits our Planet, there would be contradictory philosophies of black and white, right and left etc. However as Diop illustrates in a searing fashion, there is an urgent and indispensable need for mankind to transcend such binary notions and look beyond the petty and the petulant.
The translation by Anna Moschovakis is surreal. Remorse, revulsion and recrimination form an intricate dalliance of words that attract and repulse. “At Night All Blood is Black” is an exquisite and complete bouquet of a gamut of human emotions. Near the end of the book, a confused Ndiaye reminisces, ““Where am I?” this new voice asks. “It feels like I’ve returned from far away. Who am I? I don’t know anymore. Shadows surround me.” Although it would be revealing too much, if the context in which such an introspection was conducted, suffice it to say that contemplation of that ilk is the desperate need of the hour in a word riven by chasms of jealousy and greed.
David Diop with this seraphic book shows us the path to such an introspection. This is one book which seeps into your skin and remains etched there for an eternity!