Beginning in the 17th century, French colonists in West Africa recruited soldiers from the local populace for their colonial army. Described in cavalier fashion by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Mangin as an “inexhaustible reservoir of men,” the West African soldiers, known as tirailleurs sénégalais, formed a significant portion of the French army in the First World War, during which 134,000 fought on the European front lines and 30,000 died. Franco-Senegalese novelist David Diop recalls this period in his sophomore novel, which won the 2021 Man Booker International Prize.
The book focuses on Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier in the French army, where the tirailleurs were known derisively as “Chocolat.” After staying by the side of his “more-than-brother” Mademba Diop during the latter’s protracted death from an enemy bayonet, Alfa begins to journey out of the trenches at night and into no-man’s-land, where he kills a succession of enemy soldiers, disembowels them, and cuts off their rifle hands. These he brings back with him to his comrades, who initially react with elation at Alfa’s initiative and violence, but after the fourth such incident begin to look on him first with suspicion, then naked fear.
Published in France as Frère d’âme and rendered in a lyrical, incantatory translation by Anna Moschovakis, Diop’s novel is replete with an uncommon brutality made all the more distressing by the beauty and mellifluousness of the prose. The opening scene involving Mademba’s protracted death under a “cold blue sky crisscrossed with metal” is particularly merciless: “God’s truth, I let Mademba cry like a small child, the third time he begged me to finish him off, pissing himself, his right hand groping at the ground to gather his scattered guts, slimy as freshwater snakes.”
The imprecation “God’s truth” is one of several phrases Alfa repeats in an almost mantra-like fashion. In combination with Mademba’s plea to put him out of his misery – a request made three times – the resonance with Peter denying knowledge of Jesus following the Son of Man’s arrest is inescapable. It is one of several instances of betrayal in a novel that takes as one of its epigraphs a comment by Pascal Quignard, “He who thinks, betrays.”
He, or she. Fary Thiam, the woman who at twenty has sex with Alfa before he goes off to war, betrays her father, whose hatred of Alfa’s own father could not possibly countenance such a union. Their copulation, graphically described, is a scene that Alfa returns to in his mind several times, and resonates with the way he conceives of his trench as “the slightly parted lips of an immense woman’s sex.” His descriptions of being inside Fary and being inside his trench at the front lines overlap in their language and their metaphorical juxtaposition of giving and taking life. When he and Mademba charge out of the trench side by side to attack the enemy, they are like “twin brothers who come out the same day or the same night from their mother’s womb.”
The conflation of sex and violence finds its apogee late in the novel when Alfa, having been sent away to recuperate because his captain believes his penchant for cutting off enemy hands at nighttime indicates mental instability, he rapes the daughter of the kindly French doctor entrusted with his care.
Diop’s novel traces Alfa’s descent into madness as a result of his exposure to the horrors of war, including the holdover of anger at being forced into battle on behalf of a colonial power and the excruciating death of his “more-than-brother.” But the structure the author uses in this regard is interesting. He does not present a straight line downward from the relative sanity of Alfa’s home life in Senegal to the violence and upheaval of the European front. Instead, he opens with the death of Mademba and Alfa’s consequent obsession with disembowelling and dismembering enemy soldiers. The narration then flashes back to the scenes in Africa to fill in the backstory. Diop dumps the reader bodily in the chaos and filth of trench warfare right from the start, thereby heightening the sense of dislocation and rampant insanity.
The absurdity of war is highlighted in a scene involving the platoon captain’s order for seven reluctant soldiers (note the number) to charge over the battlefield to certain death or else be shot by their fellow soldiers in the trench. “One of them turned toward us, weeping and crying out, ‘Have pity! Have pity! Guys … guys … pity.’ … The captain yelled ‘Fire!’ and we fired.” The spareness of the language makes the description that much more chilling.
Alfa’s fellow tirailleurs come to fear that he is a dëmm – a devourer of souls – and Alfa repeatedly refers to himself as “inhuman.” But his dilemma is that he sees this inhumanity as an existential condition rather than a temporary aberration that allows soldiers to perform in combat. “I understood, God’s truth,” Alfa says, “that on the battlefield they wanted only fleeting madness. Madmen of rage, madmen of pain, furious madmen, but temporary ones. No continuous madmen.” The hands Alfa collects are totems that put fear into his compatriots, transforming him from a war hero into “a bloodthirsty savage.” The final word is significant, given its use as an epithet by white French colonists to describe Africans; here Alfa turns the epithet on himself, underscoring his belief that “each thing is double.”
The doubling motif – good and evil, sex and war, life and death – is pervasive throughout the novel, which questions where duty and friendship end and insanity begins. In a world turned upside down, it is easy to see that everything is simultaneously it opposite, with one key exception. After his first kill at night in no-man’s-land, the Senegalese soldier Alfa looks at his blue-eyed enemy with his white belly, its insides spilling out in the rain, and comes to the epiphany that renders killer and victim alike and also gives this brief and startling book its English title: at night, all blood is black.