For more than a century, writers of all stripes have creatively articulated the hardship and horrors of World War I. The first artistic depictions were in poems written by men such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, who witnessed the carnage but not the armistice. Then came prose by participants who lived to tell their tale — Robert Graves' candid memoir "Goodbye to All That" and, on the other side, Erich Maria Remarque's seminal novel "All Quiet on the Western Front."
Contemporary novelists have dramatized the conflict to critical acclaim, most notably Pat Barker in her "Regeneration" trilogy and Sebastian Faulks in his masterpiece "Birdsong."
A stunning new novel about the plight of two Senegalese soldiers in the Great War offers a fresh perspective. It also introduces a singular talent. David Diop was born in France and raised in Senegal. "At Night All Blood Is Black" is his first novel to appear in English (ably translated by Anna Moschovakis). Though short, it is an immersive, propulsive read, one that searingly evokes the terrors of trench warfare, the relentless loss of life, and the irreparable damage inflicted on the human soul.
The book begins with an anguished confession. Alfa Ndiaye, one of many Senegalese troops fighting under the French flag, has just watched his fellow countryman, childhood friend and "more-than-brother" Mademba Diop die an agonizing death on the battlefield. Mademba had begged Alfa to put him out of his misery and slit his throat. Alfa couldn't bring himself to do it. Wracked with survivor's guilt and remorse for his inaction, he carries his fallen comrade-in-arms back to his trench and surrenders to the "voice of vengeance" in his head.
From this moment on, Alfa is a changed person. He disobeys his captain's orders and, armed with a rifle in one hand and a machete in the other, starts making solo sorties: going over the top, under barbed wire, across no man's land, and into enemy lines. Every time, he kills a blue-eyed German soldier and takes a severed hand as a spoil of war.
To begin with, his trench-mates are pleased with him; later, as the "trophies" accumulate and he keeps returning with the "stench of death," they grow disturbed by this so-called "Chocolat" soldier's savagery.
"Temporary madness, in war, is bravery's sister," Alfa says in his defense. But when madness becomes the norm, this self-styled "force of nature" threatens to spiral out of control.
Diop's dark fable isn't all blood and guts. His protagonist takes time out to reflect on the village life he left behind, and his relationship with family, friends and the woman he loved. But it is the scenes of mayhem and the portrayal of delusion that have the biggest impact. Employing language that is, by turn, visceral and lyrical, Diop tells a devastating story of loss and inhumanity while enlarging our understanding of the war to end all wars.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
At Night All Blood Is Black
By: David Diop, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 160 pages, $25.