Cover Image: At Night All Blood is Black

At Night All Blood is Black

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Member Reviews  
(New African – May/June 2021 – At Night All Blood is Black – see pages 66-67)
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David Diop explores the traumatising effects of war in this novel about a Senegalese soldier, Alfa, who  is fighting in the French trenches during the first world war. Parts of the book also reflect on Alfa's life back home in Senegal. 
This book is incredibly powerful. The writing is wonderful, sometimes brutal but always poetic. We really get to see into the mind of Alfa as he loses his grip on reality when faced with the horrors of war. A very deserving winner of the Booker International prize.
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Weaving with ancestor's voices

A powerful novella highlighting the disconnect between the colonizers and the colonized. Told in a highly-stylized, formulaic language reminiscent of the mnemonic repetitions of Griot stories (And oral culture folktales from around the world), it micro-focusses on the way that Senegalese soldiers fighting for France are forced to fight against their own inner selves in order to take pat in a war that is not theirs.
***** Thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for this ARC
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At Night All Blood is Black is a disturbing and dark text filled with violence. In this novel, the carnage of WW1 trench warfare and psychological deterioration of the narrator fill the pages. However, this novel also delves deeper than most war books as it covers grief, the urge for revenge and the effect of colonial and racial stereotypes within WW1. 

There is a stylised oral narrative which works well within the text. The whole novel is an account of a man's descent into madness during war with memories of past times and places scattered within. 

One negative however, is that I was not a fan of the use of overly sexualised female anatomy as metaphors. It felt a little jarring and not in keeping with the rest of the text and subject matter. 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for an ARC in return for an honest review.
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“Yes, I understood, God’s truth that in the battlefield they wanted only fleeting madness. 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. Pain is tolerated, we can bring our pain home on the condition that we keep it to ourselves. But rage and fury cannot be brought back to the trench. Before returning home, we must denude ourselves of rage and fury, we must strip ourselves of it, and if we don’t, we are no longer playing the game of war. Madness, after the captain blows the whistle to retreat, is taboo.”

War stories are so difficult to read but also so important, as history continues to repeat itself in some part of the world or the other.

The Senegalese Tirailleurs were a corps of colonial infantry in the French Army, initially recruited from Senegal and subsequently from other parts of Africa under the French colonial empire. At Night All Blood is Black is Diop’s dark and poetic rendition of a war song and tells the story of one young Senegalese soldier who completely unravels after his best friend, almost brother, is killed in the war. Written in the form of a prose poem full of dark humour and horror, it shows the unravelling of a soldier’s mind at a micro level and the futility and cruelty of war at a macro level. 

“That’s war: it’s when God lags behind the music of men, when he can’t untangle the threads of so many fates at the same time.”

This particular war song will not leave me for a while.
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A slim volume that packs some serious punch. At Night All Blood is Black examines the horrors of war from the perspective of an African soldier fighting during WW1. The imagery that Diop conjures up is at once beautiful and horrific examining the impact that witnessing a friend killed has on the narrator Alfa. The trauma experienced by Alfa numbs him into becoming a vehicle of revenge mimicking the inhumane slaughter of his friend in the killing of his enemy. The complete disregard for life, including his own, pushes Alfa into a moral vacuum which he is forced to address as the book progresses and which he may never come back from.
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Shortlisted for International Booker Prize 2021

As the name suggests, this novel is not about rainbows and unicorns, it is bloody and brutal. My return to literary fiction couldn’t have been steeper but I do not regret my choice.

After reading almost the whole Republic of Consciousness longlist, I got tired of bleakness and difficult prose so I decided to take a break. As such, my plan to read the whole Booker International shortlist was abandoned. However, I decided to try the titles that attract me the most. At Night All Blood Is Black captured my attention because it deals with a part of history I know nothing about. Also, it is very short and I got it from Netgalley from one of my favourite publishers so I felt responsible to review it.

The novel is set in the trenches of WW1 and had as main character, Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese black man, part of a „Chocolate” army fighting for the French. Unable to mercy kill his badly wounded friend he descend into madness and starts to murder his enemies in gruesome ways. After the deed he takes one of their severed hands as trophy. The French use the racist stereotypes of the African soldiers as being savage and sorcerers to scare the German enemies so at first, Alfa’s revenge killings are praised as part of the act. After the hands start to pile, the rest of the French army begin to feel frightened. It shows how war can dehumanize people and how they were butchered in the trenches with almost no chance to survive.

The prose is terrifying, violent, graphic, repetitive which makes it even more atmospheric but also poetic. I preferred the 2nd part more, where we learn some background information about the two characters before the war. It is an intense novel and it should be read in on go, not like I did, 10 pages now and then. One of the most unsettling parts of this novel was the repetitive use of sexual metaphors to describe the trenches. I am not sure what the goal was but the effect was quite disgusting. I might not have understood the ending either.

Some interesting thoughts about translations: “To translate is never simple. To translate is to betray at the borders, it’s to cheat, it’s to trade one sentence for another. To translate is one of the only human activities in which one is required to lie about the details to convey the truth at large. To translate is to risk understanding better than others that the truth about a word is not single, but double, even triple, quadruple, or quintuple. To translate is to distance oneself from God’s truth, which, as everyone knows or believes, is single.”
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At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop is a stunning, visceral short novel. Alfa and Mademba are two Senegalese soldiers, more-than-brothers fighting in the Great War. They rise dutifully from the trenches at the sound of the whistle to attack the German enemy. When Mademba is wounded begging for mercy in death, Alfa is left alone his heart broken, his mind and moral compass corrupted. He throws himself into the dark, writhing belly of war, its violence and savagery. Alfa’s actions and behaviour begin to frighten his fellow comrades, who believe he is possessed by the dëmm or devil. The prose is both beautiful and brutal. It’s repetitive nature both hypnotic and unnerving. As a reader you witness a man with an innocent soul and clear mind become transformed by the brutality and violence of war as enacted by the enemy and his own commanders causing him to descend into madness and vengeance. An unforgettable story.
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Very intense novel about the horrors of war and a man going mad because of it. I was impressed by it, but at the same time there were also some things I didn’t quite like. 
The repetitive style didn’t always work for me, as in the poor description of Alfa’s sexual experiences and I found the comparison of the trenches to women’s genitals  rather inappropriate. 
Thank you Pushkin Press and Netgalley for the ARC.
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It is unfair to write this without having read the entire shortlist, but At Night All Blood is Black has serious International Booker Prize-winning potential. David Diop’s novel, in translation by Anna Moschovakis, is a short, sharp and utterly mesmerising work of literature that is as painful as it is compelling to read, a book that deals unflinchingly with madness and war, but also – with heartbreaking tenderness – with love and the untrammelled hopefulness of youth. Written in urgent yet lyrical prose that makes the events it describes both horrifyingly vivid and hard to turn away from, At Night All Blood is Black is the darkest and most revealing of fever dreams, a novel that gives just as much as it demands of its reader.

[A full review is available on my blog.]
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At Night All Blood Is Black is a powerful historical fiction novel set in the French trenches of World War One. Written from the perspective of Senegalese soldier, Alfa, it vividly depicts this man's rapidly declining mental health in the aftermath of witnessing his best friend's drawn out and agonising death in No Man's Land. I feel that this novel would appeal to readers of Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy in its understanding and portrayal of how the horrific Great War conditions drove so many soldiers to the brink of insanity and, in this case, far beyond that line.

I found several scenes difficult to read because of the grim violence they describe. The path Alfa chooses to follow is extreme, yet makes perfect sense when viewed from the disturbed turmoil of his mind. What particularly interested me too was how his fellow surviving soldiers initially applauded and encouraged his actions. Diop's first-person narration has an enthralling, poetic quality which I found compelling. Despite his monstrous actions, Alfa always came across to me as a broken man, not as the evil demon his comrades see.

It is rare to find a Great War novel written from a non-white point of view - a timely reminder of the thousands of African and Asian soldiers who were conscripted into European-led armies only to have their sacrifices downplayed and overlooked afterwards. I am grateful to Pushkin Press for translating At Night All Blood Is Black into English because my French isn't strong enough to have fully appreciated the work in its original language.
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This is a challenging read. This is the story of two Senegalese soldiers , Alfa and Mademba “conscripted “ to join the French army in World War I. From their homes to the battlefield, the futility and violence of war is laid bare and following the death of Mademba, Alfa seeks retribution in a shocking manner. The language describes the tragedy of war yet captivates in an almost poetic style. A worthy international Booker prize nominee that holds a light up to a forgotten group of men within history and the sacrifice they made.
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A powerful, visceral short novel now shortlisted for the International Booker prize. As news media reported last week on unmarked graves of countless soldiers from Britain’s colonies who fought and died in WW1, I started reading At Night All Blood is Black, about Senegalese soldiers who fought and died for France in the trenches of the Western Front. 

The Chocolats, as they were derogatorily known are pretty much used as wind-up savages, their white French commanding officers sending them out, rifle in the left, machete in the right hand screaming, to terrorise German soldiers, who feared death, savagery, rape, cannibalism at their hands. After witnessing the slow, excruciating death of his childhood friend, his ‘more than brother’ Mademba, the narrator Alfa snaps, slowly descending into madness as he seeks revenge for his fallen friend. But while temporary madness is encouraged: “Temporary madness makes it possible to forget the truth about bullets. Temporary madness, in war, is bravery’s sister.”, after the battle, the wind-up savages should neatly go back into their boxes: “As soon as the fighting ends, we’re to file away our rage, our pain, and our fury… Madness, after the captain blows the whistle to retreat, is taboo.” Alfa’s comrades increasingly become afraid of him, seeing him as dëmm, a “devourer of souls”, “an eater of the insides of men”. 

Alfa tells his story in simple language (very well translated by Anna Moschovakis). Repetition gives rhythm to the storytelling, it has a flow of a prose-poem. The imagery is stark and often disturbingly sexualised with trenches likened to female sex while rumour is brazen and spread-legged. At Night All Blood is Black is a compelling indictment of dehumanising effects of war as well as of colonial racism and exploitation.  

My thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for the opportunity to read At Night All Blood is Black. Highly recommended.
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"You have to be careful, when you believe you're free to think about what you want, not to let in the thinking of others, in disguise, the false thinking of your father and mother, the spurious thinking of your grandfather, the masked thinking of your brother or sister, of your friends, in other words, of your enemies"

War stories have a major role in maintaining our sense of perspective in the modern world. Stories of seperation, grief, reunion, joy; we've heard it all. What about stories on the battlefield? What of the emotions and mental trauma a soldier goes through? This book aims to make that available to us, a soldier's story from the warfront.

Poetic, heartbreaking and entirely enlightening, 'At Night All Blood is Black' focusses on a singular human emotion: REGRET. It talks about a lesser known part of the ugly side of the war; the story of a West African man who fought for France during World War 2.

It is the story of the awakening of a man who lost his bestfriend in the war, and the build-up of regret in his body because he thinks he was the reason for his friend's prolonged suffering. That's the effect death has on us; we think of reasons to pile the blame on us because there's nothing we can do about inevitability.

There are in general 7 stages of grief: denial, guilt, anger, depression, the upward turn, reconstruction and acceptance. All of us must have encountered grief personally or through a second-hand account, so we know how a person develops from each stage and pulses through. But in this story, the protagonist goes through the same stages of grief, but takes a different turn such that the overall development we see in him is improbable and at the same time beautiful, which is why this book provides an important message.

It tells us that nothing is general in life, nothing is foreseen or foretold, and so life is unexpected. We can and should never expect a person to recover just as we did. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder goes a long way, and it is up to us to embrace it or leave it be.

Another concept this book talks about is the freedom of thought. It tells us that not one human on Earth is free to think, because all of our thoughts are influenced by the people around us. When we finally break free from the mainstream thought process, we're labelled hysterical. Freedom and being human is thus paradoxical.

David Diop did an amazing job in putting his thoughts in such a fantastic manner with proper emphasis at the right lines, and hats off to Anna Moshovakis for making sure that even in translation, the essence of the book was maintained.

For fans of the movie 1971 and otherwise, this book is must read!
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At night all blood is black is a short and visceral novel, immersing you in the thoughts of an African soldier fighting for the French in the First World War. Violent, disturbing and ultimately moving, Diop takes us into the heart of the battle, and then into a period of rehabilitation. The central character also reflects on his childhood in Senegal (?) and his first love / sexual awakening, and the contrast with his best friend who he could neither save nor bring a swift end to his suffering.

The ending initially threw me, but on reflection (and this book has been in my thoughts for 24hrs now) there is an unexpected beauty.

I’ve struggled to describe this well. Don’t listen to me, just read this
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David Diop's atmospherically visceral, harrowing and powerful award winning novella is superbly translated by Anna Moschovakis, and is deservedly on the 2021 longlist of the International Booker Prize. It throws a much needed spotlight on the European powers in WW1 and their exploitation of people from the colonies drafted to fight and die for them, but almost always missing in accounts of the Great War. The French utilise their racist stereotypes of the African soldiers as barbaric, subhuman, and primitive savages to be incited to defeat their German enemies. Narrated by a Senegalese soldier, Alfa Ndiaye, with his close friend 'almost brother', Mandemba Diop, both leave their home for the first time to serve as the 'Chocolat' soldiers in the European trenches.

When Diop is fatally wounded in no man's land, Alfa cannot bring himself to put an end to his agony and suffering, an decision that is to send him spiralling into a brutal and violent madness, fuelled by overwhelming grief, regret and guilt, with repercussions that have him seeking revenge, to replicate Diop's death as he targets and kills German soldiers. At first, Alfa is lauded by the French soldiers as he returns with his collection of hands, but not for long, as they become afraid and rumours begin to dog him, referring to him as a sorcerer. He sees a psychiatrist, and we learn of his past, his family, and his relationship with Diop. Underlying the narrative are numerous biblical allusions, and unpalatable and unsettling sexual metaphors are used in the battlefields.

The author poses fundamental questions about war, graphically laying bare the nightmare of horrors that is war, how it brutalises and destroys the soldiers used as fodder in the war, as illustrated by the ending, a destruction that extends to the colonisers battling to win the war as it kills any sense of humanity within the national psyche. I am not sure I will ever be able to forget this novel, it feels as if it has seared itself in my memory, an incredible, if unbearable, and revelatory read that documents the fight and sacrifices made in WW1 by soldiers from the colonies, ruthlessly exploited by the ruthless and racist French. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Pushkin Press for an ARC.
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Most accounts of World War 1 and the horrors of trench warfare are from the perspective of non-BIPOC narrators. Here are some statistics though: well over 4 million BIPOC men were mobilised into the European and American armies during the War, in both combat and non-combat roles. France recruited between 1914 and 1918 nearly 500,000 colonial troops, including 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans. (sources: British Library article by Dr.Santanu Das). This book is a visceral, haunting account of a Senegalese soldier in World War 1, Alfa Ndiaye enlists because his friend and almost-brother, Mademba Diop, enlists out of a sense of patriotism towards France. They contend with the unimaginable experiences of the madness of war, but also with the incredible racism of their commanding officers, who view them all as a monolith, firstly, and refuse to acknowledge their individual humanity. Diop writes of superior officers referring to them as "wild savages who are useful in frightening the enemy", which ironic in a war where everyone behaves with savagery and inhumanity. The writer brings out the inherent insanity of war, and the hypocrisies of colonialism-Ndiaye is constantly told by his superiors to behave "savage", but only to a point where they feel they can control him. Ndiaye's personal traumas mean nothing, unless they can be used to provoke further violence against the enemy. The enemy, in this case, the author is very careful to emphasize, being war itself. The writing is very powerful-everything about the war was so crazy, what extent of craziness was too much? In a situation where colonial soldiers were dying for countries that denied them rights in their own homeland, was Ndiaye's very specific form of revenge ( as violent as it is) really that much crazier? 
My only issues with the book were a few paragraphs that unnecessarily objectified women, and used fairly violent imagery. The metaphors, of course, standing in for the violations of colonialism, but that felt gratuitous to me.
This is a short, but very powerful book. If you're thinking of reading a war novel, read this, instead of 'All quiet on the Western Front ' for the millionth time.
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David Diop’s 2018 novel Frère d’âme achieved great acclaim in the French-speaking world. It has now been published by Pushkin Press with the title At Night All Blood is Black, in an English translation by Anna Moschovakis, earning itself a place on the longlist of International Booker Prize.  

At Night All Blood is Black is an addition to the body of novels dealing with the tragedy of the First World War. Considering that there are well-established classics set in the trenches of the Great War, any novelist wishing to convey the horror of the carnage is immediately faced with the challenge of how to bring something new to the subject.  What is original about At Night All Night is Black is that it is written from the perspective of a Senegalese soldier in the French army.  It is a (probably) lesser-known fact about the Great War that a total of around 200,000 so-called Senegalese Tirailleurs fought for France, 135,000 of whom in Europe, with 30,000 killed in action.

Alfa Ndiaye, the narrator, is one of those soldiers, derogatorily referred to as “Chocolats” by their European leaders.  The novel opens harrowingly, with Ndiaye remembering the last hours of agony spent with Mademba, his “more than brother”, eviscerated during an attack on an enemy trench. Mademba begs Alfa to end his agony by slitting his throat. Alfa feels that it would be wrong to do this, but later questions whether his moral compunctions were justified.  This traumatic experience turns Alfa into a revenge-intent beast, who attacks enemy soldiers with his machete, cutting off their hand as a trophy.   Through his increasingly wild yet daring actions, Alfa disturbingly accepts and perpetuates the very racist image of the “fear-inducing savage” which his colonial masters promote.  In fact, his initial forays into the enemy lines are celebrated, but there comes a point when both his Senegalese comrades and the French start getting wary of Alfa.  And this is hardly surprising because, although he does not admit it, Alfa is descending into madness, sucked into a vortex of grief and guilt, masked by a newly-found lust for brutality, violence and sex.

The thoughts of the increasingly traumatized soldier are conveyed in a stream-of-consciousness style.   The deliberate repetition gives the novel the feel of a prose-poem, whilst also hinting at the Alfa’s obsessiveness.  After the opening descriptions of life in the trenches, Alfa reminisces about the life he led back in Senegal – these nostalgic segments of the book are imbued with a sense of the mythical and folkloric.

Given the subject-matter, and its graphic (although never gratuitous) violence, this novel is hardly what one consider “entertaining”, and some readers will probably prefer to stay away from it.  However, it tells an important story in an original way, and, given its short length, does not outstay its welcome.
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Whenever I think about the best literary work on World War I, my mind would fling towards Erich Maria Remarque’s magnum opus "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1929). But too often we forgot that the Great War was not only a war fought between several European powers. French colonies in Europe were also dragged into the mess, and many of the colonised saw this war as an opportunity for them to obtain French citizenship as was the case of our main character in this story, Alfa Ndianye.

Ndianye’s tale begins as a confession with his guilt over the death of his more-than-brother, Mademba Diop who begged for Alfa to finish him off since it was his best intention to be killed by his more-than-brother instead of suffering by the death that slowly pulls him out of his body. Alfa’s regret soon awakened the other side of him. African legionnaires who fought in the trenches were tasked to perform acts of savagery in order to frighten the enemy.

Alfa Ndianye did not miss this opportunity and mutilated the hands of his enemies to release his agonies over the death of Mademba Diop. The first three hands were cut, and he was praised by his captain, but after that, it was troublesome for him as real madness is not allowed on the battlefield. In the words of Alfa: “Temporary madness makes it possible to forget the truth about bullets. Temporary madness, in war, is bravery’s sister. But when you seem crazy all the time, continuously, without stopping, that’s when you make people afraid, even your war brothers.”

David Diop’s prose has poetic elements to it. It lays open the psychological trauma of a soldier who lost comrade-in-arms on the battlefield, which turns an act of braveness into savagery. Unlike Remarque whose intention is to tell us that the war itself is the enemy, the main character in this story brings the sense that war is the thing that transforms human beings into savagery. Alfa Ndiaye, in his endless quest to seek the blue-eyed German soldier who murdered Mademba Diop, lost himself to the savage nature of the war, in that he describes himself in his self-confession as synonymous to death itself.

The novel, albeit a short one (only 192 pages), brings about the complexities of being a human who is faced with the savage nature of war. It is the kind of literary cinema, that seems to be imperfect if not read in a single sitting, and in fact, I found myself devouring more than half of the story on my first day of reading it. Originally written in French, the translation of Anna Moschovaki also feels natural that it still contains the beauty of the worldview of Senegal’s Wolof people who inhabit Gandiol, a town in Saint-Louis in northwestern Senegal where Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop originally from. This book indeed lives up to my expectation of a work longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021.
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“They won’t imagine what I have thought, what I’ve done, the depths to which the war drove me. In today’s world, God’s truth, I allow myself the unthinkable”

In WW1 approximately 135,000 Senegalese soldiers (termed “Chocolats”), fought for the French army in Europe and of these around 30,000 died. Inspired partly by French soldiers’ letters home, David Diop imagines what a Senegalese soldier would have written. The result is a haunting, hypnotic read, a riveting confession of what is unthinkable and unspeakable, an unflinching denunciation from a man who has decided to call things by their name.  

We meet Senegalese recruit Alfa Ndiaye as he is at the side of his dying more-than-brother Mademba Diop. Although Mademba has been disembowelled and his entrails are hanging outside of his body, he is still alive and for three times he beseeches Alfa to end his suffering. Alfa doesn’t comply, still conditioned by the laws of humanity and his paternal teaching: in his words “this was before I allowed myself to think anything I want”. But Mademba’s horrible death is a turning point for Alfa, who suddenly apprehends the inanity of human laws and begins to think for himself, no longer listening to the “voice of duty”.  This realisation is the beginning of Alfa’s hallucinated descent into madness, which manifests itself in the macabre rituals to which he subjects the blue-eyed “Krauts” he ambushes on no-man’s land (in physical and spiritual sense). While his deeds are initially hailed as bravery, after the third time his comrades start considering him possessed, a “soul devourer” and a madman. The novella develops the theme of madness/possession/doubling, which allows to see reality with estranged eyes and expose the colonial mindset and the absurdities of war. However, as the novella digs into Ndiaye’s memory and explores other themes such as burgeoning sexuality, guilt, abandonment and rape, it becomes clear that this is also a tale of coming-of-age, where war trauma and all these themes intersect and merge with dire consequences.  

Diop exposes the racialisation and negative stereotyping that led to cast Senegalese soldiers as savage brutes, who were armed with machetes and pushed “to play the savage” on the battlefield: while this was meant to scare the enemy, who “was afraid of savage Negroes, cannibals, Zulus”, it also made them easy, dispensable targets as they were encouraged to hurl themselves out of the trenches, “beautifully massacred while screaming like madmen”. Ndiaye understands that “France needs us to play the savage when it suits them” (certainly not in Senegal and back in the trenches), but he also decides that it is impossible to conveniently leave the horror and savagery on the battlefield. Even if unintentional, this is a very interesting reversal of Kurtz’s tale in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where darkness is now in the heart of civilised Europe and “the horror” is finally defined and told. 

At Night All Blood Is Black is a visceral read, hallucinated and lyrical. I was totally captured by the way the story is told and estrangement is conveyed. Diop creates a memorable voice and unreliable narrator: he puts repetition to good use to create a prose that is rhythmic and hypnotic, mixing Christian allusions and African traditions and folklore; the battlefield, a backdrop for gruesome acts and meticulously crude details, comes alive with sensuous and sexual imagery that helps tie together the multiple layers of the novella (above all personification such as the trenches as “the slightly parted lips of an immense woman’s sex. A woman, open, offering herself to war, to the bombshells, and to us, the soldiers”, bullets as seed). 

Although I found the first part more convincing than the second one, this is a story that absolutely needed to be told and a worthy contender for the International Booker prize shortlist. 
4.5 rounded up
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