Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop are not blood relations but their relationship is so deep that they consider each other more than siblings.
Alfa’s mother is the last of his father’s wives. She disappears one day and this marks the beginning of a tight relationship between Alfa and Mademba. In fact, Alfa receives the blessing of his father to move in with Mademba and his family after the unexpected disappearance of his mother. They have their differences, including a girl choosing one over the other but their bond triumphs over all human frailties.
Alfa and Mademba are creations of David Diop, a Senegalese novelist and the reigning International Booker Prize winner. The duo are the main characters in Diop’s WWI novel, At Night All Blood is Black originally written in French and later translated to English by Anna Moschovakis.
This slim book of just 145 pages starts on a sober note and ends on a thought-provoking one.
The two boys are drafted into the war to fight in a battle they know nothing about, to defend the interest of a colonial authority, with little or no respect for their humanity. France is fighting Germany and the duo are part of the French colonies commandeered to help defeat the German forces.
When Mademba is fatally wounded, he begs his childhood friend to slit his throat and hasten his death. Ndiaye finds this difficult to do and will live to regret not honouring his friend with a less painful death.
After Mademba’s death, Alfa, who is also the main narrator of the story, becomes a beast and seeks revenge in a way that his fellow combatants will soon stop hailing and in no time confine him and subject him to a mental evaluation. His colleagues are so afraid of him that even the one who interprets the French spoken by their commander starts every sentence in such a way that it is clear they are not his words but those of the commander and when his colleagues are asked to search through his things for evidence of his supposed insanity, fear will not let them dare.
Mademba’s death makes Alfa nostalgic, he remembers home, he remembers his parents, he remembers Fary Thiam whose warmth he had known and he remembers the heroes maimed, disfigured and eviscerated by war. His childhood friend’s demise also makes him feel like a betrayal and he constantly seeks his forgiveness, even in frightening dimensions.
Diop’s narrative is filled with bullets, bombs, blood, sorrow, tears and deaths. There are also elements of black magic. They are all deployed seamlessly to tell an important story, ask important questions and dazzle us even when almost every single page drips with blood, blood that should never have been shed.
Diop’s second novel is his first to be translated and made available to a wider audience. In it, he ignores the big angles from which other novels on the war have focused. He delves into the effect of the war on people who ordinarily should have had nothing to do with the war and he hides under two friends who see each other as more-than-brothers to examine this important angle.
From this seemingly simple but relegated perspective, he tells a devastating story that speaks above a whisper about the futility of war, especially wars being fought for others and for reasons alien to the combatants.
Diop’s tale borrows from the oral tradition of storytelling and we are regularly told “I know, I understand” and the divine is frequently invited to bear witness to the yarns he is spilling.
In this carefully crafted, not-over-layered novel, Diop interrogates humanity and draws the reader deep into a world filled with injustice and intrigues. The pace is so good you can read it in one sitting. The sentencing is devoid of clutters and descriptions seem to be in proportion to the need of characterisation.
The ending of the book is a shock and this adds to the amazing effects of this book, which is another proof that so much gems lie in literature written in languages other than English and buttresses the arguments for more translated works. It would have been a disservice to those of us who do not understand French to have missed out on Diop’s small but mighty novel.
Olukorede S Yishau is the author of In the Name of Our Father and Vaults of Secrets