SEPTEMBER 16, 2021
BEAUTIFULLY WROUGHT VIOLENCE makes for gripping novels and murky ethics. David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, originally published in French in 2018, was one of the most decorated novels of that year, winning the Prix Goncourt, and its English translation by Anna Moschovakis won the 2021 International Booker Prize. A short, visceral book, it tells the story of an African soldier’s imbrication in World War I. Like many novels about the Western Front, it puts the horror of trench warfare front and center. The book’s incantatory gore makes it a critique of war along the lines of All Quiet on the Western Front, but in Diop’s hands something else is also going on.
Our hero is Alfa, a young Senegalese infantryman fighting in the French Army. His friend is badly wounded on the battlefield and, dying in Alfa’s arms, begs to be put out of his misery. “God’s truth, I thought only of gutting the half-dead blue-eyed enemy. I thought only of disemboweling the enemy from the other side.” Alfa begins to act strangely in battle. When his unit goes over the top in an attack, he holds back until the engagement is over, camouflages himself with mud, and lies in wait. He seeks out a German soldier — one with blue eyes — whom he ambushes, drags into no-man’s-land, tortures, disembowels, and watches die. He then cuts off a hand to take back to his unit. He does this seven more times, preserving the hands in salt in the trench kitchen to keep as talismans. As he sees it, Alfa is committing to the pantomime of savagery the French officers expect of African soldiers, becoming the “butcher of human flesh” they want him to be. After initially celebrating his bravery, his fellow soldiers begin to turn against him. The Africans fear that he has become a sorcerer or a cannibal, and the French officers believe he has lost his mind. Alfa’s hand-cutting behavior “isn’t regulation,” as his commander tells him before sending him to the rear to recuperate.
It’s impossible to read this book without thinking about the ugly history of severed hands in Africa. The cutting off of hands was a feature of colonial conquest, most famously in the Congo Free State, where the Belgians removed the hands of those who failed to collect their quota of rubber. Baskets of hands were clear evidence of colonialism’s cruelty, both to critics at the time and in historical hindsight. More recently, severed hands came to symbolize a different brutality — that of the civil wars of the 1990s, when neoconservatives used the practice to argue that African warfare was uniquely pitiless and atavistic. Alfa’s collection of hands, which he keeps in his trunk until burying them one night, calls these histories to mind for the reader. But to what end? Are we to conclude that Alfa has internalized the cruelty of colonialism? That Europeans didn’t have a monopoly on chopping off hands? Or is this just a grisly tale of personal revenge?
One of the blurbs on the back of the book comes from the French novelist Mathias Énard, who writes that Diop “erects a beautiful monument to the Senegalese riflemen, and seeks to restore their African dimension; to listen to them, to understand them.” I suspect that this is how many people will read this book — as a vindication of the Africans who fought in World War I. If this is Diop’s intention, he achieves it in a roundabout way. The protagonist is a madman, albeit a bleakly heroic one. He does the very things that Europeans evoked to tar the honor of African soldiers — he breaks the rules of “civilized” warfare, and (maybe) kills a European woman. At times, it is as if Diop has drawn his picture of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais from E. D. Morel’s 1920 racist screed, “Black Horror on the Rhine,” which indicted France for using colonial soldiers in its postwar occupation of Germany. At other times, it seems more in the vein of Ousmane Sembène’s 1988 film Camp de Thiaroye, which memorializes how France betrayed its African soldiers. In the military sanitorium where Alfa is sent to recuperate, flashbacks to his youth provide hints at why he went berserk on the battlefield. His relationship with the friend whose death sets off his killing spree is more complicated than we were initially told. He relates his first sexual encounter over and over, blurring his lost virginity with his experiences in the trench, which he describes in grotesquely sexualized terms.
Diop’s book is morally inscrutable, and as a meditation on war, race, and colonialism, it cuts like a dull knife. Are we to cheer on the protagonist as he obliterates German soldiers? If so, are we cheering for him because the Germans are the enemy, or because he is a subaltern taking a bloody, personal revenge on Europe? Or are we to indict him for his cruelty? Diop gives us no landmarks to orient ourselves in the no-man’s-land where he sets his story — a brave decision at a time when many readers demand moral clarity from stories about the past. The adventure his protagonist embarks on is an “ambiguous” one: the book begins, appropriately, with an epigraph from Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s classic novel of colonialism L’Aventure ambiguë (1961). Any attempt to divvy up its characters into heroes and villains is bound to fail.
“Whoever tells a well-known story,” the narrator informs us toward the book’s cryptic and surprising end, “might always be hiding another story beneath it.” What is the story beneath this story? There are several, but the one that shows through clearest is about how we taxonomize the violence of warfare. Violent death levels all, as the book’s title suggests. But not all violence is alike. Diop’s book probes the difference between the “legitimate” violence of battle and the kind that is taboo or dishonorable. In one particularly affecting scene, Alfa’s hand-cutting is juxtaposed with a gruesome execution of a group of soldiers for cowardice by their French commanders. Why do the norms of war deem one of these things “civilized” and the other not? The line between them, Diop shows, is drawn not by the nature of the killing, but by who is doing it.
Samuel Fury Childs Daly is assistant professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime, and the Nigerian Civil War (Cambridge, 2020). He is currently writing a comparative study of why soldiers run from battle, entitled The Good Soldier: A Global History of Military Deserters.