Alfa Ndiaye, the son of Senegalese farmers, was enrolled in the French army by a recruiter before being sent to the front at the age of 20. Like the other 135,000 infantrymen from West Africa called up to fight during World War I, he was plunged into the hell of industrial warfare. When his friend and “more-than-brother” Mademba Diop was shot before his eyes, he begged him to cut his suffering short by ending his life. But Alfa refused, and so began a descent into madness. Armed with a machete the French army gave African troops to terrorize the opposing camp, he started cutting off the hands of enemy soldiers. In doing so, he hoped to avenge his friend and surpass the expectations of his superiors, confirming the stereotypes about Africans held by colonial France. “The captain’s France needs our savagery, and because we are obedient, myself and the others, we play the savage,” says Alfa at the start of his story. “We slash the enemy’s flesh, we maim, we decapitate, we disembowel.”
While many letters from the poilus, French infantrymen in the trenches, have been recovered and even published, there are almost no accounts written by African soldiers. This is partly because many were from cultures based on oral traditions, but also because those who survived refused to speak. In reaction to this absence, David Diop, an associate professor at the University of Pau, has imagined a stream of consciousness that takes readers into the soldier’s mind, where a maelstrom of impossibly brutal images clashes with the bright and loving figure of Faty Thiam, a lover left behind in the village.
Unlike his more-than-brother Mademba, Alfa speaks Wolof, not French. Through extensive linguistic work, David Diop – who was born in Paris and raised in Senegal – has recreated this strangeness in a blend of naivety and a deep reflection on interiority and freedom. “My thoughts belong to me alone,” says Alfa, whose account progresses and is joined by a second voice from somewhere deep inside him. An incantatory novel haunted by questions of duality and betrayal, At Night All Blood Is Black portrays war from the perspective of a human being battling with the darkest parts of himself. A raw, unflinching spotlight on the immense massacre of World War I.