At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop review – war and mental collapse

Winning a big prize can be bittersweet for a writer: now the majority of people who read your book will have sky-high expectations, higher, indeed, than the judges who gave the award. And by the time it won the International Booker prize earlier this month, David Diop’s second novel At Night All Blood Is Black (translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis) had already scooped awards in France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the US. Could this be… the best book ever?

In fact, it’s possible to feel underwhelmed with Diop’s novel at first. It begins in a forceful but repetitive way, hammering over and over the same points in the narrative by Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier in the first world war. He has, “God’s truth”, a horror story to share. It involves the escalation of violence – he has taken to cutting off the hands of dead German troops (“my trench-mates began to fear me after the fourth hand”) – and his descent into madness. “The mad fear nothing. The others […] play at being mad.” Soon, he is believed to be a dëmm, a “devourer of souls”, and spurned by his fellow troops.

The madness is sparked or accelerated by Ndiaye having to watch his childhood friend Mademba Diop, “my more-than-brother”, die alongside him, disembowelled and begging for Ndiaye to kill him. He refuses, then is consumed with guilt, just as he felt guilty for helping Diop get fit for the fighting to begin with. (In this respect, the original French title Frère d’âme, which translates as something like Soul Brother, seems more fitting than the one we have.)

With all the reiteration of the same points in the same words, the reader starts to feel pretty shellshocked too, but just when you’re thinking: “Get on with it”, he does. In the second half of this slim book, we see where Ndiaye came from and where his “madness” leads and we find that he speaks little French, so his narrative is necessarily restricted and repetitive. The forcefulness is not only a representation of his mind but a substitute for the subtlety that evades him.

As Ndiaye is removed from frontline duty and taken to hospital (accompanied, of course, by the severed German hands), the narrative begins to break down further. His mind corrupted, he revels in his own physicality – “God’s truth, I know I’m handsome” – and misreads his nurse’s attention: “I didn’t need to speak French to understand the language of Mademoiselle François’s eyes.” This can lead only in one tragic direction. As Ndiaye’s very identity begins to crack and slip, the brilliance of David Diop’s conceit becomes clear and the reader must reconsider the story backward as well as forward. That is why it has appealed to so many prize juries: it rewards rereading, which recasts the violent opening chapters in a new, even darker light. If the measure of a book’s success is to be quite unlike anything else, then At Night All Blood Is Black deserves the bouquets and trumpets after all.

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis, is published by Pushkin Press (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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