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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

At Night All Blood Is Black

David Diop

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To purchase At Night All Blood Is Black

Title: At Night All Blood Is Black
Author: David Diop
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 145 pages
Original in: French
Availability: At Night All Blood Is Black - US
At Night All Blood Is Black - UK
At Night All Blood Is Black - Canada
Frère d'âme - Canada
Frère d'âme - France
Nachts ist unser Blut schwarz - Deutschland
Fratelli d'anima - Italia
Hermanos de alma - España

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, slim personal portrait of another side of the First World War

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro A 15/11/2018 Bruno Corty
FAZ . 22/1/2020 Wolfgang Schneider
Le Monde . 13/9/2018 Gladys Marivat
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/12/2020 Chigozie Obioma
The Observer . 20/6/2021 John Self
Le Point A 29/9/2018 Tahar Ben Jelloun
The Spectator . 21/11/2020 Suzi Feay
Le Temps . 16/9/2018 Isabelle Rüf
The Times . 3/11/2020 Antonia Senior
TLS . 25/6/2021 Kate Mc Loughlin
World Lit. Today . Spring/2021 Daniel Bokemper

  From the Reviews:
  • "Avec son style oral, naïf, ses expressions répétées comme un mantra, le roman de Diop envoûte plus sûrement qu'un classique roman sur la guerre. Il est original car il donne la voix à ceux qu'on a peu entendus, ces Africains recrutés pour leur courage et leur capacité à terrifier l'ennemi." - Bruno Corty, Le Figaro

  • "Als Ich-Erzähler erscheint Alfa aber durchaus nicht verrückt. Er wirkt eher wie eine Art grässlicher Konzeptkünstler, der mit abgehackten Händen und Gedärmen arbeitet, um das rassistische Klischee vom wilden Schwarzen überzuerfüllen. (...) Die Leser sollen sich fragen, worauf die Darstellung des „Anderen“ in Konfliktsituationen eigentlich fuße." - Wolfgang Schneider, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "But this book is about more than a lone man's spiritual burden. Diop realizes the full nature of war -- that theater of macabre and violent drama -- on the page. He takes his character into the depths of hell and lets him thrive there. (...) The novel, though originally written in French, is grounded in the worldview of Senegal's Wolof people, and the specificity and uniqueness of that culture's language comes through even in Anna Moschovakis's translation." - Chigozie Obioma, The New York Times Book Review

  • "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." - John Self, The Observer

  • "Ce roman est une merveille. Écrit dans un style simple, presque naïf, mais étonnant, il nous raconte la tragédie des tranchées avec une délicatesse émouvante. Ce n'est pas un roman sur la guerre, c'est plutôt un livre sur ce que Montaigne appelait « la soudure fraternelle »." - Tahar Ben Jelloun, Le Point

  • "David Diop's powerful novel, not much more than novella length, is full of echoes and portents. (...) With elegant brevity, Diop presents a world with no firm dividing line between courage and madness, murder and warfare; the most dedicated killers are awarded the Croix de Guerre. Alfa's final transformation, as he attempts to atone for his guilt over the death of his friend, is unexpected, poetic -- and chilling." - Suzi Feay, The Spectator

  • "Frère d'âme dépasse la chronique historique et pose avec un tranchant de poignard une question philosophique universelle." - Isabelle Rüf, Le Temps

  • "A professor of eighteenth-century literature, Diop has mixed graphic violence with mystical rumination and traditional storytelling to create a work that is as much a prose poem as a novella." - Kate Mc Loughlin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "A recollection of late childhood and carnage, Diop's prose is less of the fever dream sometimes associated with similarly grotesque subjects and more an organic, direct recount of destruction years at a remove à la Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence." - Daniel Bokemper, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       At Night All Blood Is Black is set during the First World War, and narrated by Alfa Ndiaye, a 'Chocolat' soldier from West Africa fighting for France in the European trenches (as hundreds of thousands did). He is from a small village in Senegal, and he does not even speak French; he enlisted because his "more-than-brother" Mademba Diop, his closest friend, into whose family Alfa was then also adopted, was eager to go; Mademba hoped also then to go into business with Alfa in the local big city upon their triumphant return.
       While Alfa is physically imposing Mademba was such a scrawny runt that the French initially turned him down for military service, even in those (desperate-for-cannon-fodder) times. Alfa helped build him up a bit and then joined him when the French finally did agree to pack him off to the Western front. The novel opens on the battlefield, where the French and Germans are fighting in the trenches, and with Mademba having been killed by a German soldier who had played dead and then slit his stomach open.
       Mademba died -- slowly: "it wouldn't end, from dawn into evening" -- in Alfa's arms, suffering greatly ("his guts in the air, his insides outside, like a sheep that had been dismembered") and even begging Alfa to take his life. Alfa then carried the corpse back to the French position -- exposed, across the battlefield, an act that put him in great danger. The experience leaves him a changed man, as he becomes obsessed with avenging Mademba's death.
       Doing unto the German soldiers what they did to Mademba, he repeatedly ventures out and picks off soldiers at closest range. Each time, he takes one of their hands as a trophy. For a while, his comrades celebrate his bravery and daring, but pretty soon they begin to find this pretty creepy: "Up to the third hand, I was a war hero, beginning with the fourth I became a dangerous madman, a bloodthirsty savage". It's a thin, invisible line in wartime, but everyone senses Alfa has crossed it. His actions go beyond the bounds even of the horrors they face daily. Alfa becomes an untouchable, a leerily regarded other in their midsts.
       The temporary madness soldiers need to function in the heat of battle is one thing:

     But when you seem crazy all the time, continuously without stopping, that's when you make people afraid, even your war brothers. And that's when you stop being the brave one, the death defier, and become instead the true friend of death, its accomplice, its more-than-brother.
       Alfa keeps the hands -- all except the first, which another soldier had, for a while, amused himself with, before bringing misfortune down upon himself --, remembering each kill and each victim.
       Even in the brutal madness of the front, Alfa is clearly seen as no longer fit for duty, and he is sent to 'the Rear', to a medical institution. In the comfortable calm there he communicates with the doctor in charge, Dr. François, through his drawings -- though of course there's only so much of his traumas that can be drawn out of him this way. Alfa is also attracted to the doctor's daughter, who is a nurse or orderly at the hospital. While in the more peaceful surroundings -- though he made sure to have his saved, severed hands, close by, buried out back ... -- Alfa looks back on his childhood and youth, his friendship with Mademba, and the girl who gave herself to him the night before he left for France.
       Reflecting on his actions, and his past, Alfa uses a simple and straightforward style, hardly dispassionate but also not losing itself to the horrors of the acts he commits and the terrible war conditions he lives through -- or, for that matter, the absurdity of the situation he finds himself in, having left his small home village behind, traveling to a new country and climate, and charged there with fighting someone else's enemy. If his acts show him capable of being carried away -- acting (out) almost purely instinctually -- his accounts are measured and controlled. He shows insight into his feelings and (re)actions -- and those of those he interacts with, his fellow soldiers and superiors -- but there's a separation between, essentially time at rest and time in action (across the bloody battlefield), even as he describes both (and then also his recollections of his earlier life) in practically the same tone. Readers are made to share, through this eerie voice and description, with his madness so controlled, the unease that Alfa's comrades feel about him.
       Alfa does also find himself apart from those around him, even those of similar background and experience: on the front, Mademba was his one tie and bridge to everything else; without him, he is clearly at sea. (In his home village he too had fewer closer ties, especially after the tragic loss of his mother, but there was at least some form of family, the close bond with Mademba -- and the girl who loved him.)
       The role of the African soldier in the French military is obviously a significant facet of this story. There is little overt racism here, as everyone's focus is on the enemy and on trying to survive, and Alfa does not stand out merely for his different appearance and origins, as he is in the company of soldiers with a similar background. Nevertheless, he is aware of his otherness -- and of the fact that the French obviously hope that it is an advantage in combatting the Germans. When Alfa is up-close and going in for the kill of his next victim:
Looking into the enemy's blue eyes, I often see a panicked fear of death, of savagery, of rape, of cannibalism. I see in his eyes what he's been told about me, and what he's believed without ever seeing me.
       Alfa's descent -- or rather: leap, as it is sudden -- into a form of madness is only limitedly due to his being African, but certainly that feature contributes to how his madness is seen and how he is treated. His inability to even communicate in the local language only underlines how set apart he remains.
       As the original French title suggests, this is a story of soul-brothers -- and of what happens to the surviving brother when the other is lost. The horrific conditions Alfa faces, before and after, contribute to the depths he is flung into but are only part of the story. It is the way Mademba dies that undoes Alfa: he feels tremendous guilt about his inability to lessen Mademba's suffering -- including his unwillingness to kill his friend, as Mademba begs him to -- and his powerlessness, watching his friend die this slow, agonizing death. A nice touch is how Diop allows Alfa to present himself: he is not tortured in the way one might expect, given what he is experienced, he does not behave like a raving madman. Even in hunting down German soldiers he shows himself to be patient and quiet, seemingly complete under control. And of course it's his controlled -- but never calculated -- behavior that makes Alfa all the more disturbing a figure. Once in hospital, in 'the Rear', away from the fighting, Alfa lives in some peace and comfort; he is not haunted in the way one might expect -- say, shaken by terrible nightmares -- and yet of course he has been shattered to his very core.
       At Night All Blood Is Black is a solid variation on the First World War novel, a glimpse of less well-known experiences and an interesting spin on personal trauma. A good personal portrait of a different kind of soldier, it's a bit slim but certainly packs enough of a punch; it is effectively harrowing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 October 2020

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At Night All Blood Is Black: Reviews: David Diop: Other books by David Diop under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French-Senegalese author David Diop was born in 1966.

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© 2020-2023 the complete review

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