‘At Night All Blood is Black’ by David Diop – Trench War is Hell

 

‘At Night All Blood is Black’, a novella, by David Diop  (2018) 145 pages        Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis

 

‘At Night All Blood is Black’ has probably the best credentials of any novella or novel. It won both the prestigious French literary 2019 Prix Goncourt as well as the 2021 International Booker Prize. It is a brutal war novel depicting grisly trench battle scenes including disembowelment and evisceration during World War I. This novella is not for the faint of heart.

First a little of the background.

With World War I raging in Europe, African soldiers were forced to fight for their colonial masters between 1914 and 1918. France recruited more Africans than any other colonial power, sending 450,000 troops from West and North Africa to fight against the Germans in Europe on the front lines. These black troops were known as the Chocolat Soldiers. During the war, around 30,000 Africans died fighting on the side of France alone.

“People from Senegal, Ivory Coast and Mali died for France. It’s true that France colonized them, but it wasn’t their choice. You could almost say they died for nothing, at least not for their countries.” Clemence Kouame, an African student

‘At Night All Blood is Black’ vividly tells the ugly truth about trench warfare during World War I. Many more civilians were killed and wounded during World War II, but World War I was much worse for the soldiers who had to fight in those trenches.

This story begins with trench soldier Alfa Ndiaya from Senegal watching his more-than-brother friend Mademba Diop die after being stabbed in the stomach by a German soldier. While Mademba is pushing his own guts back into his stomach, he begs Alfa to shoot him to put him out of his misery quickly. Alfa cannot force himself to do that, and afterwards he feels tremendous guilt for not having shot his friend.

After his more-than-brother Mademba’s death, Alfa goes on his own murderous revenge spree leaving the trench each night by himself and shooting a German soldier, then using his machete to chop off the German soldier’s hand and bringing it and the German’s rifle back to the trench as trophies. He murders seven German soldiers in this fashion.

At first the French officers are very pleased with his efforts, but they begin to question his sanity.

Don’t tell me that we don’t need madness on the battlefield. God’s truth, the mad fear nothing…You’d have to be mad to obey Captain Armand when he whistles for the attack, know there is almost no chance you’ll come home alive…God’s truth, you have to be crazy to drag yourself screaming out of the belly of the beast.”

The whole idea of war, groups of people out to murder each other, is insane, but some forms of insanity are acceptable and some are not.

Temporary madness makes it possible to forget the truth about bullets. Temporary madness, in war, is bravery’s sister.”

However there are still rules about what is tolerated.

In war, when you have a problem with one of your soldiers, you get the enemy to kill him. It’s more practical.”

In one troubling scene, the French Captain Armand does exactly that.

Not all of ‘At Night All Blood is Black’ is this horrific battlefront account. When Alfa is removed from the front, he recalls scenes with his mother and family and friends back in Senegal in his childhood and youth which might or might not explain his behavior.

Up until the last 15 pages or so, I was fully prepared to give this novel my highest ranking for its clear, lucid, and moving, if grim, story line. However I cannot quite fully recommend this novella because of the somewhat incoherent ending in the last three chapters which veers drastically from the intense accurate bluntness of the novella up to this point. I can understand the reason for this incoherence. Our soldier who so blithely chops the hands off other soldiers is at a loss when his violence spills over to other parts of his life. However the last few shaky pages are quite a change for this sure-footed novel.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

9 responses to this post.

  1. This has been on my radar for a while, think it’s one I’ll have to be in the mood for. Happy if I include your review in the Novellas in November round up?

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  2. I’ve read a bit about this one when it won all those prizes but I must say that, despite the praise, I’m unlikely to read it. Excellent review, however, you really did the book/novella justice!

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  3. […] At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop (Tony’s Book World) […]

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  4. […] At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop (reviewed by Anokatony at Tony’s Book World) […]

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  5. I’d forgotten about this one when planning for Novellas in November… I wonder where I put it…

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