At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop. Book report #27 (2022)

At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop. Pub 2018.
Translation by Anna Moschovakis published 2020.

I selected this book knowing only a few things about it: it is an award winner (Booker International 2021), it is a translation from the original French, titled Frère d’âme, and it has a colour in the title. It was helped up the tsundoku by being short (~150 smallish pages).

Part war story, part ghost story, this is the tale of Alfa Ndiaye, a French Senegalese (a chocolat) soldier in the first world war and his descent into (or perhaps just the manifestation of existing) madness. Told in the first person in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style, Alfa tells of the death of his friend Mademba in the no-man’s-land space of the battlefield. The dying was gruesome and graphic, with Mademba begging Alfa to end his suffering. Alfa cannot, and his grief and guilt morph into insanity and commitment of atrocities, and a belief that his madness is in fact a super-power, while to others it looks like sorcery. His atrocities lead to his confinement, where he commits one last crime before being entirely lost to madness.

Being stream-of-consciousness and from a madman’s perspective, there is much rambling and repetition, but it makes sense; the reader can imagine that that is how a madman would sound, almost conversational with the reader, talking to himself and trying to convince or reassure himself that he’s not mad (it’s everyone else who are mad). While this repetitive narration could have been tedious, it works well here as a reflection of the narrator’s character, with a slow and steady progression of both events and revelations.

A part of Alfa’s madness, and the perception of it by others, is connected to language – he does not speak or understand French, and so he cannot explain or discuss his inner world with others (hence the ongoing dialogue with himself). He also cannot understand the questions or directions from others, and this perpetual lack of understanding and being understood creates an isolation that perpetuates his delusions and madness. Given his mental state, it is hard to imagine any effective or meaningful translation and communication.

On the main themes (madness and language/translation), the text and language are poetic and poignant:

  • On madness:
    • “Don’t tell me that we don’t need madness on the battlefield…Temporary madness makes it possible to forget the truth about bullets. Temporary madness, in war, is bravery’s sister…”
    • “…on 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.”
  • On translation: “To translate is never simple. To translate is to betray at the borders…is one of the only human activities in which one is required to lie about the details to convey the truth at large.”

As an exploration of the madness of war, and of the isolation and madness-inducing circumstances of being un-understood (is that a word?) due to both language and social barriers, I don’t think you’ll find a better story (caveat: I think Catch-22 (also in the tsundoku) might be the closest equivalent, but as a satire focuses more on the inanities of the military than on the horrors of war, and language barriers are not a big issue).

Fate: the book is small enough that it will remain on my shelves. Other reviewers have commented that it gets even better on a second reading, so I might try that some time.

1 – a book with a murder
2 – a book with a body part in the title (does blood count?)
16 – a book with a colour in the title
21 – a book translated into English (from French)
25 – a new author to me
34 – a book that has won a prize

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