Having won the International Booker (a prize that sees a grand prize equally divided between author and translator, which feels like a good thing) as well as a fair few other international prizes, David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black is surfing a wave of acclaim that has brought it to our door.
What we have here is a war novel, specifically a novel of the Great War (in other words, the first world war) but told from a perspective we haven’t been granted before, that of Senegalese soldiers fighting on the side of the French.
Alfa, our narrator, sees his friend Mademba, die painfully, with his guts hanging out, over a period of hours – Mademba begging Alfa to put him out of his misery, Alfa not feeling able to. This push-me, pull-you effectively deranges Alfa such that, following Mademba’s death he becomes a war machine, severing the hands of the enemy and committing atrocities of the Jack the Ripper variety (laying out their guts). At first Alfa’s fellow soldiers love what Alfa has become; and then it continues and continues and they are gradually horrified, regarding him as a kind of demon.
“…when you seem crazy all the time, continuously, without stopping, that’s when you make people afraid, even your war brothers. And that’s when you stop being the brave one, the death defier, and become instead the true friend of death, its accomplice, it’s more-than-brother.”
Written in the kind of staccato repetition that David Peace employs (with stock phrases like ‘God’s truth’, ‘my more-than-brother’, etc), and a similar narrative arc to many of Peace’s novels (what we are witnessing is a narrator’s descent into madness and towards the close, as we move back through Alfa’s live but also seem to admit other, shall we say, consciousnesses, it becomes somewhat more difficult to parse things, as it is with Peace).
It’s a short, sharp, effective and brutal book whose impact, for this reader, was slightly dulled by the muddying of the waters towards the close of the book. But Diop is undoubtedly a talent and Pushkin Press continue to impress with the books they publish on their limited list.
Any Cop?: Whilst we have to admit it didn’t blow our socks off in the way that Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World did, At Night All Blood is Black is a powerful and impressive read and we’re interested in seeing what Diop does next.