Tuesday, June 22, 2021

At Night All Blood is Black

We're in World War I. Our narrator, a man named Alfa Ndiaye, is a Senegalese man fighting as what is called a Chocolat soldier with the French Army. Day in, day out, he endures the horror and tedium that is trench warfare. Though most of his fellow soldiers are white, he does have one comrade there, his "more than brother", from his home village in Senegal. This is Mademba Diop, who he left Senegal with to join the French army in the fighting. In the midst of the carnage, the close bond the two have helps keep them going, but then Mademba gets badly wounded in battle. He lies dying in no-man's land and begs Alfa to kill him there. The alternative is a slow and painful death for Mademba. Despite Mademba's pleas, Alfa can't bring himself to put his friend out of his misery and Mademba dies in the agony he hoped to be spared.

Tortured by guilt for his failure to fulfill Mademba's wishes, seeing himself as a coward, Alfa begins to spiral into madness. He becomes obsessed with avenging the death of his friend and finding forgiveness in himself. He comes up with a grotesque ritual he enacts nightly. Fearless, as if he knows he's invulnerable, he crawls across enemy lines, right up to their trenches, and kills a German soldier. A "blue-eyed" soldier, as he describes them. He then returns to his own base, and with him, he brings his victim's severed hand. At first his comrades, white and black, marvel at his ruthless efficiency, but, as he says, "After the seventh severed hand, they'd had enough." Everyone around him has had enough, both the Toubab soldiers (the name for the white troops) and the Chocolat soldiers. All the soldiers of all ranks come to see him as at best someone tired, who needs a rest, and at worst a malevolent force, a kind of sorcerer. By some, he is labeled a "demm", a devourer of souls. One thing is clear: his actions and the fear he has inspired in his comrades are having a deleterious effect on morale, and his superiors decide that he must be removed from the front. This is the set-up (yes, just the beginning) of David Diop's At Night All Blood is Black, in effect a murder story set in the middle of a war.

Released in 2018 in France and published in English recently here, At Night All Blood is Black is yet another example of what I've been reading most for the past year -- a short novel that packs a wallop. Into its 145 pages, it examines war, race, madness, loyalty, betrayal, colonialism, memory, and more. In its teller's voice, Alfa's voice, it uses an African oral style of telling, at once rich in striking imagery and psychological density and simple in its actual vocabulary. This contrast gives the novel a direct as well as a timeless quality, and the book has a perspective on World War I, that war of utter waste, that I haven't often encountered. Indeed, the closest thing I've come across to it, though entirely different in style, is the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene's 1988 film Camp de Thiaroye, which is about a real-life mutiny and mass killing of French West African troops by French forces in 1944. That's a great film worth seeking out, and this is a book to match it.

No comments: