Home Art & Culture In the Trenches of World War I, a Bloody Ritual Fueled by Guilt

In the Trenches of World War I, a Bloody Ritual Fueled by Guilt

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By David Diop

From the very first pages, there is something beguiling about “At Night All Blood Is Black,” a slim, delicate novel by the Senegalese-French writer David Diop. The narrator, Alfa Ndiaye, is an African legionnaire fighting for the French in the trenches of World War I, who tells the story sometimes in the form of sordid confession, other times in the form of sobering testimony.

Ndiaye’s tale is fueled by guilt and a singed conscience. The novel begins after he has helplessly watched his friend Mademba suffer a slow and agonizing death, unable to put an end to his misery despite the man’s pleas that Ndiaye slit his throat. This transgression against the dead — or the delusion of such — fills the story with a mythic affliction that recalls the old sailor’s in Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The narrative voice brims with innuendoes and habitual repetitions like “I know, I understand” and “God’s truth,” which imbue the character with an edgy eccentricity.

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. In the trenches, Ndiaye’s affliction soon becomes a sort of psychological self-flagellation. It is manifested in a brutal ritual: Each night, Ndiaye sneaks away under darkness to kill a “blue-eyed enemy” soldier from the German line and brings back his severed hand.

At first, his superiors are all too happy for him to “play the savage” and strike terror in their adversaries’ hearts. But by the seventh hand, everyone is terrified of him. Even his fellow African troops tremble in his presence and think he’s a “dëmm, a devourer of souls.” Ndiaye finds that while “the captain’s France needs our savagery,” it also needs him to wear and shed that image like a tunic: “On the battlefield they wanted only fleeting madness.”

As violent and disturbing as these encounters are, they are rendered with such artistic grace that one derives a strange pleasure in reading about even the bloodiest of nights. 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. When Ndiaye’s unit commander has had enough of his gory killings and sends him to a psychiatric hospital, he is cured by a French doctor who washed “the filth of war from inside my head.” Ndiaye’s young lover, Fary Thiam, is described in cosmological terms as “at times an earth-shattering tornado, at others an ocean of tranquillity.” Their love, though, is doomed, much like Ndiaye’s relationship with his mother, who disappeared when he was a child; his vivid memories of her fill the novel with poignant light.

By the time we reach its shocking yet ultimately transcendent ending, the story has turned into something mystical, esoteric; it takes a cyclic shape. At its core, the book is about how a man tries to understand primal, ethical questions about those on the other side of the front line: What is our obligation to the Other? Are we any different from the enemy, and is he in fact us — if we look closely enough? And if so, is it even possible to have an enemy?

More than a century after World War I, a great new African writer is asking these questions in a spare yet extraordinary novel about this bloody stain on human history.

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