In World War I the French government drafted around 200,000 soldiers from its colonies, including Senegal. These recruitments were not always voluntary – some men were stripped of their land if they resisted enlistment.
Over a century later, David Diop gives his merciless yet poignant insight into the experience of West Africans who served, died or had their lives changed forever in the brutal trenches of World War I, fighting for a country that was not theirs.
Told in the first person by Alfa Ndyaye, a 20-year-old from a rural, innocent village background in Senegal who is persuaded to join his friend and become a low-ranking tirailleur or rifleman in the French army, this story, dedicated to the harsh reality of life, death and everything in between is not for the faint-hearted.
The book begins with “I KNOW, I UNDERSTAND, I shouldn’t have done it.” What shouldn’t he have done? Another morning breaks and it’s another sound of the French Captain Armand blowing his whistle to signal yet another attack on the German enemy.
Alfa and his ‘more than a brother’ Mademba Diop leap out of the trenches ready to fight. A few moments and only metres later, Mademba falls with a fatal injury inflicted by the enemy. Lying in his best friend’s arms, he begs Alfa to finish him off by cutting his throat and putting an end to the agony, but Alfa cannot.
“Three times he asked me to finish him, three times I refused.”
Every human has their strength, but even the strongest can be broken and at the point of Mademba’s death, Alfa is filled with both self-revulsion and remorse at the realisation that the humanity that prevented him putting an end to the misery was the same humanity that should have allowed him to do it.
“Don’t mistake yourself for the hand of God. Don’t mistake yourself for the hand of the Devil.”
His resilience to the horrors surrounding him begins to shatter and his mind takes on a newly distorted view of what he must do.
Journey of unravelling
Diop takes us on a remorseless journey of unravelling, where the horrors of war induce one man’s madness. Alfa tells of a life in the trenches, where men compete with one another in recklessness and tribal rivalry, goaded by their captain, where life is cheap and where living is crueller than death.
“The captain told them that the enemy was afraid of savage Negroes, cannibals, Zulus, and they laughed…The captain has told them they are great warriors, so they love to get themselves killed while singing, so their madness becomes a competition…Temporary madness in war, is bravery’s sister.”
In an already ruthless war, Alfa’s actions climb to another, sinister level when he believes his deliberate killing, mutilating and trophy-bearing of the enemy is an act of revenge and atonement for Mademba’s death. The vicious escalation of his deeds finally results in his removal from the front-line and he is sent for medical treatment.
“Madmen of rage, madmen of pain, furious madmen, but temporary ones. No, continuous madmen. As soon as the fighting ends, we’re to file away our rage, our pain and our fury.”
Diop’s interpretation of the battle that can erupt inside a man’s head is harrowing yet thoughtful and the ache you feel for Alfa is intensified when in between the stark hopelessness, he narrates a life before war – a life full of love, friendship, hope and honour and his first tender experience of becoming a man with the beautiful Fary Thiam, daughter of the head of his village. He makes several analogies of women to war throughout the book, perhaps using them to alleviate his intensely troubled thoughts.
This work has been defined as “a mix between the classical traditions of French and the rhythm of the orality of African languages”, by fellow writer and member of the Royal Spanish Academy, Antonio Munoz Molina – and indeed although written in French, the rhythm of the words comes from Alfa’s natural language of Wolof.
The book is short, almost novella-size, but it fully captures the violence and tragedy, unifying old African myths with the disturbing insanity of war in a story that whilst uneasy to read, fills you with emotion and, for me personally, a relief – that I have so far in my life not experienced war.
About the author
David Diop was born in 1966 in Paris but spent most of his childhood in Senegal before returning to France to study. In 1998 he became a professor of literature at the University of Pau and the Adour Region, located near the Pyrenees mountains in France, lecturing on 18th-century literature and European representatives of Africa in the 17th and 18th century. He is now Head of the Arts, Languages and Literature Department.
His first novel, a work of historical fiction – 1889, L’Attraction universelle – was published in 2012 but it is his second novel, Frère d’âme or At Night All Blood Is Black, which has garnered international attention. The author has cited some letters as inspiration behind the book and its emotional intensity.
“Several years ago, I read some letters that the historian Jean Pierre Guéno had compiled – true, absolutely moving testimonies written by young people, wounded and abandoned in no man’s land. In them, they address their relatives announcing that they are safe, but when the family receive their letters, very emotional, the soldiers are already dead.”
In 2018 he won the prestigious Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, the Choix Goncourt Prize in Spain, and the 2020 Los Angeles Time Fiction Book Prize, as well as other international awards for his second novel.
In 2021 he was one of six authors on the International Booker Prize shortlist, with his the only African novel. The award recognises the best works of fiction that have been translated from a foreign language into English; the overall winner will be announced in early June.
The book has been translated into 13 different languages and it would be remiss not to mention Anna Moschovakis, who meticulously and sensitively translated it into English.
She is an award-winning US poet, author and translator of American-Greek descent with an MA in comparative literature. During an interview she explained: “I was always aware that I was translating a translation (my translation of the author’s translation of the character’s thoughts). As a non-Wolof speaker, I am perhaps similarly distant from Alfa’s thinking language as are other non-Wolof speaking readers, a distance David helped me to think of as useful. The trick of the novel is to convey the destabilising effects of the ghost-language as it both admits and resists mediation by the colonial languages of French and now, English.”