Historical Fiction Books

Anthem for doomed youth: Review of David Diop's ‘At Night All Blood is Black’

In poetry, lines are repeated for emphasis. It is even given the status of a poetic device — a refrain. In prose, the impulse is different. When, in the International Booker Prize-winning novel, At Night All Blood Is Black, translated from French, words and phrases repeat themselves — “God’s truth”, “I know, I understand” — it gives the sense of a swirling, hypnotic world, which is slowly losing its grip not just on conventional narrative but also on everyday reality, flirting with the absurd, and then becoming it.

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Savage pride

Fighting for France in World War 1, the narrator Alfa Ndiaye and his best friend Mademba Diop are both Senegalese tirailleurs — foot soldiers employed to charge ahead of the main columns. The book begins in the tone of a confession — Ndiaye has just witnessed Diop’s body being hurled inside out, his intestines lying on the floor. When Diop asks Ndiaye to slit his throat and kill him for the pain is unbearable, Ndiaye refuses, citing humanity, citing hope that he will survive, citing morals that “arrived fully formed, too well dressed to be honest”, citing a world that celebrates life sacrificed, not life succumbed.

Diop dies, and over the course of the slim novel, Ndiaye slowly disintegrates into violence and madness, slaughtering men with a savage pride, collecting their amputated arms like souvenirs. The beauty, and perhaps brutality, of this is that as a narrator he has an almost pedantic clarity about what is happening and what people are thinking of him. If we think of madness as, among other things, an inability to see how others see us, Ndiaye falsifies this notion.

War and madness

As the novel progresses, we are taken back to the friends’ lives in the village, and the friendship that morphed into brotherhood — getting circumcised on the same day, falling in love with the same girl, propping each other’s losses with love. It is the kind of storytelling that reads like an elegy, and it is an elegy, so that the faults in the character eulogised blur.

Anthem for doomed youth: Review of David Diop's ‘At Night All Blood is Black’

In the barracks, Ndiaye is now considered a “dëmm, a devourer of souls”, and is ostracised, furthering his lather-grip on reality. His own captain chastises his savagery: “You will content yourself with killing them, not mutilating them. The civilities of war forbid it.” The question of limits comes up — when does murder become mutilation?

In between there are meditations on war and madness, and madness in war: “Temporary madness makes it possible to forget the truth about bullets. Temporary madness, in war, is bravery’s sister.” Ndiaye contrasts how, for war-mongers, madness is a cloak while for someone like him, the cloak has become a skin and is now bruised forever.

Black blood

There is a sense of barbaric medieval futility in the realisation that two kinds of people, not unlike each other, are deciding the limits of geography, which country belongs to whom, by selecting its healthiest men and throwing them together in a pool of blood. There is also the accompanying sense of emptiness of modern life, aspirations, war medals, the thumps on the back for pumping bullets — described evocatively as “metallic seeds of war that produce no harvest” — into bodies, in the hacked off hands of young men who, in another world, would have had another life ahead of them. Alfa Ndiaye is himself just 20. (The women in the novel are peripheral, recalled with the watery indistinctness of memory.)

The title of the book is not so much a fact as an impression. When the narrator slits the throat of a “blue-eyed” enemy, the blood is black. When Diop’s body is bloodletting, the colour is black. Both these incidents happen at night, with the moon as witness. Later, it is peripherally noted that it’s the reflection of the granite sky that makes the blood look black. Which tells us that what is important is not how the world is, but how it is perceived to be.

It is this outright rejection of the objective world that sometimes struck me as confusing. Given that there is no one narrative thread, I often felt at sea, just taking in the words, not sure how they connect, if they connect at all. Sometimes, David Diop completes the narrative circuit with a shocking finality, and sometimes, he lets it fester, untouched, unresolved, like war, any war, all wars.

At Night All Blood is Black; David Diop, trs Anna Moschovakis, Pushkin Press, ₹284 (Kindle price)

The writer is a critic with a weekly newsletter, prathyush.substack.com

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