David Diop: Frère d’âme (At Night All Blood Is Black)
It is perhaps not generally known, at least in the English-speaking world, that Senegalese soldiers fought in World War I and, indeed, served in the trenches. This is the story of a such a troop as they faced the Germans in the trenches and, in particular, of two of them.
Alfa Ndiaye is our narrator. He is from Gandiol. His father, Bassirou Coumba Ndiaye, was a Senegalese farmer and unlike others in the village, he allowed the nomadic Fula herdsmen access to his artesian wells. He is on particularly good terms with Yoro Ba. Yoro Ba has a beautiful daughter, Penndo, and, in gratitude to Bassirou for welcoming him, he offers his daughter to him, dowry-free, though Bassirou is quite old and already has three wives. Bassirou accepts and Alfa is soon born.
Penndo, however, is a nomad and loved roaming the region with her father and brothers. However, she can just about settle down, provided her family make their annual visit. However, they stop doing so. She gets more and more depressed and finally tells her husband that she must go and look for them. She is accompanied part of the way by her young son. She never returns, with rumours of a kidnapping.
Alfa, of course misses her but he becomes very close to Mademba Diop, so much so that he transfers to Mademba’s family and is adopted by Mademba’s mother. When they grow older, it is Mademba who says he wants to see the world and that means fighting for the French, becoming French citizens and setting up successful business and making money. In order to entice Alfa, he tells him that they can earn enough money to buy back Penndo from her kidnappers. Alfa is sold.
Both boys had been interested in Fary Thiam but she has chosen Alfa, as he is he more handsome. It is she who helps ease Alfa’s departure.
We actually first meet the young men on the battlefield of France. Mademba has been stabbed in the stomach by a German who had pretended to be dead and then suddenly attacked him. Mademba is dying – Diop gives us a fairly graphic description of his entrails hanging out – and he begs Alfa to finish him off. Three times he asks and three times Alfa refuses, with Mademba suffering badly. Mademba finally dies and Alfa regrets – and continues to regret – not having heard his friend’s pleas, not least because, as we shall see, he blames himself for Mademba’s death.
Mademba bravely carries the dead body of his friend back to the trenches, even though he is under heavy fire, and will win a Croix de Guerre for his bravery. He then plots his revenge.
He now goes out with his comrades but when the commander summons them back, he hides and waits for a German to come out of a shell-hole. He then stabs him the stomach, leaving him to slowly die and then finishes him off. He then cuts off his hand holding his rifle and carries the rifle, still gripped by the hand, back to the trenches as a trophy. He is feted for his bravery. But then he does it again. And again. His comrades, both African and French, think he is weird, worse, insane and savage. For everyone, for the soldiers both black and white, I have become death. I know this, I understand. The commander wants them to be savage when they attack to frighten the enemy but not when they return to the trench. On the battlefield they wanted only fleeting madness. Madmen of rage, madmen of pain, furious madmen, but temporary ones. No continuous madmen. He even preserves the hands and hides them away. By the seventh hand they have had enough and he is persuaded to go to the rear for treatment.
It is when he is recovering in the rear that the tone of the novel changes as we learn of his past. The first part of the novel – the action in the trenches – is fairly conventional realism, albeit with Alfa’s bloody revenge tactics. In the second part we move more into the realm of fable and legend. His family and his relationship with Fary are partially told as the stories of legendary characters. More particularly, language ceases to be his mode of communication as the doctor and his nurse/daughter do not speak Wolof and he does not speak French so he uses drawings, which are described. He then tells a long fable as he himself begins to try and find who he really is. I am the creator and the destroyer. I am double.
This is a very fine novel as it manages, entirely successfully, to combine brutal realism and fable/legend/inner psychology. Both Alfa and Madembo, who, though dead, will speak to us later in the book, move from being what the French want them to be – part-time brutal savages – to being what they want to be – complex human beings.
First published in 2018 by Seuil
First English translation in 2020 by Pushkin Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Anna Moschovakis