Once a certain amount of time has passed and once we’ve heard a story the same way enough times, history can kind of fossilize in our collective memories. Historical fiction can bring those old stories to life for us, but it takes a book like David Diop’s emotionally wrenching At Night All Blood is Black (faithfully translated by Anna Moschovakis) to make use revise what we thought we knew and push the fossils into new shapes. In this brief novel, Diop puts us into the fracturing mind of Alfa Ndiaye, one of 200,000 men who fought for France as a Senegalese Tirailleur.
Alfa Ndiaye is a legend among his regiment. After the dead of his more-than-a-brother, Mademba Diop, Alfa has been lingering in no man’s land to ambush German soldiers. When he catches one, he kills them and takes their rifles and right hands. Alfa is hailed as a particularly gutsy hero for, he tells us, the first three hands. When he brings back the fourth, his captain and the rest of the regiment start to turn on him. He might be a legend to them, but he becomes a terrifying one that no one knows what to do with.
The above (and a bit more in the form of flashbacks that show us Alfa and Mademba’s childhoods and adolescence) are the barebones plot of At Night All Blood is Black, but that’s not all that happens. The plot is really a support for Alfa’s thoughts as he reflects on his friend’s death and his own role in it, about what it means to fight for the country that’s colonizing his own, what feels like to be seen as a savage by so-called civilized people, and what true bravery really is. This is not an easy book to read, especially once Alfa’s sense of self—and even his sense of embodiment—starts to disintegrate after another comrade dies and he brings back an eighth hand.
Alfa and his story push us to think about the African experience of World War I, an experience we might not have known even existed. It’s strange to be reminded that World War I involved soldiers pulled in from Europe’s colonies in Africa and Asia (that I know of). I’ve read several novels that show how bewildering it was for the average Briton, German, or Frenchman being whisked into a brutal war over national promises. How strange and horrifying it might have been for a man to be pulled into a war because Great Britain or Germany or France marched into his country decades or centuries earlier and put their flags down everywhere.