Reading A Soldier’s Mind in ‘At Night All Blood is Black’ by David Diop

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

At Night All Blood is Black  – Originally published: 16 August 2018

About the Author

David Diop is the head of the Department of the Arts, Languages, and Literature at the University of Pau in southwest France. His area of specialization as an academic includes French and Francophone African literature from the 18th century. His research on 18th-century Frech literature also secured him a doctorate from Sorbonne. Born in Paris to a French mother and a Senegalese father, Diop spent most of his childhood in Dakar, Senegal, before returning to France for his higher education. His first book, also a work of historical fiction, is called ‘1889, l’Attraction universelle’. It deals with the experience of a Senegalese delegation at the 1889 Exposition Universelle held in Paris, France. He is the first French novelist and the first writer of  African heritage to have won the International Booker prize in 2021.

The translator, Anna Mischovakis, a Greek-American poet, is a founding member of the Bushel Collective and the Ugly Duckling Presse. A Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from UC Berkeley and a Master in Comparative Literature from CUNY Graduate Center; she has written for The Paris Review, The Iowa Review, etc. She is currently a faculty member of Bard’s College, MAG School of the Arts, and an adjunct professor in an MFA program at Pratt Institute. 

Summary of At Night All Blood is Black

Alfa Ndiaye is a Senegalese soldier recruited in the French army and posted at one of the fronts during World War I. We come to know in the course of the story, which aims to chart the psychological fragmentation of Alfa’s mental state caused by the war and its deadly repercussions, that he joined the way because of his best friend (like a brother), Mademba Diop. In a repetitive chant of words, Alfa’s narration seeks to bring together his past and present which have become seemingly disjointed because of the war. However, this process of dissociation began the day Mademba Diop succumbed to his wounds on the battlefield, his guts thrown open by the enemy’s weaponry. This is the central incident of the novel that the readers find themselves directly thrust into right from the first page. Mademba, after being injured, pleaded with Alfa to kill him and put an end to his agony, a moment in time that continues to haunt Alfa. The gradual disintegration of Alfa’s mind paints for us a picture of the bloody revenge he ensued on the enemy, the bitter wartime experiences of the ‘Chocolat’ soldiers in the war, the memories of his intimate moments with Fary Thiam, Alfa’s parents, and his childhood, and the moment of final disintegration of his mind. The book is equally disturbing and violent and must come with a trigger warning for the readers.

Like A Refrain in Prose: At Night All Blood is Black

A literary device commonly used in poetry, a refrain may be a single line, phrase, or a couple of lines that recur periodically in the span of a literary work. A common example of a refrain would be:

“The tide rises, the tide falls,

The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;

Along the sea sands damp and brown

The traveler hastens toward the town,

      And the tide rises, the tide falls.”

~ The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In this stanza of the poem, the repetition of the first line comes to signify the movement of the tides. Similarly, the use of a refrain helps exude a sense of repetition, an ongoing event, or to amp up the drama in a text. They also add a certain momentum to the poem, making it sonic in nature.

Diop’s novel uses several repetitive lines, including the phrases “God’s truth,” “I know, I understand,” “I swear to use,” etc. These repetitions cast a hypnotic spell on you as you progress through the book, resembling a kind of ebb and fall of the incidents Alfa describes. The repetition hints also at the monotonous routine of emerging from the trenches, attacking the enemy, and successfully coming back to their station, a grinding schedule that the soldiers are forced to get used to. Besides, Alfa is a Senegalese soldier who hasn’t received a school education, so when he narrates the story in French, he needs to overcome the impediment of not knowing enough French to communicate to the readers. You may also come to understand the nature of these repetitions as the slow disintegration of his mind, which can only fixate itself on certain moments in the past.

Why Should You Read the Book, At Night All Blood is Black?

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop
Diop’s novel tells the story of two Senegalese soldiers fighting for France in the trenches of World War I.

Alfa’s account of World War I is very different from how we are used to perceiving the war, primarily as a white man’s struggle. Diop’s story looks at the struggle of soldiers recruited in the war from one of France’s colonies, Senegal. They are popularly termed as ‘Chocolat’ soldiers at the front because of their skin color and are handed a machete along with their uniform to scare away the German soldiers. They were the so-called savages who were supposed to bring a sense of barbarity to the war. In fact, Alfa narrates an incident when some of them were sacrificed to the enemy by manipulating them to volunteer on occasion; their hands were tied behind their backs so that they could not retaliate against the enemy’s gunfire or run away from them. At Night All Blood is Black doesn’t only lay bare the horrors of trench warfare and the trauma the soldiers succumbed to because of the same; it shows how the war used racial stereotypes to perpetrate violence. By making Alfa the protagonist, Diop’s novel reassigns agency to a forgotten race, helping them reclaim the narrative of the war.  You should read the book for how visceral and harrowing it is and let it absorb you slowly in the narration because of the poignance of Diop’s writing.

Discussing the Cover of At Night All Blood is Black

This novel also has one of the most beautiful covers (the one by Pushkin Press) I have come across in recent times. A patchwork of colors – Cobalt blue, Prussian blue, and Emerald green – forms the backdrop of the silhouette of a soldier who is holding a rifle and is ready for action. Above him, and in the center of the cover, is a big, white moon.

The backdrop is symbolic of the no man’s land that the warring ground was, where the parties on either side were mere puppets in action, not knowing which exact front they were posted on earth. It also gives us an idea of a hazy blur that symbolizes a sort of blindness at night if one were to tread through this area. This blindness is also metaphorical. It instantly speaks to us about the meaninglessness of war and the blind hatred against each other that soldiers were to channel in their duty. The darkness of the night with the moon as its only source of light also represents the hopelessness of soldiers at the front, their quick disenchantment with the war, and the purpose of their lives. You may also read it as the representation of the story by a singular narrator, our only shining light to understand the horrors of trench life during World War I.

It strikes me as a clever choice, the cover design by Jo Walker, that it should contain the color blue. Blue, once you read the novel, you realize it is the color of Mademba’s eyes, the same color that Alfa becomes fixated upon searching. He repetitively finds (read: seeks) blue eyes in his enemies. The patchwork of darkness on the cover can also be read as the darkness that engulfs Alfa’s mind, with how his mind rearranges the war and its narrative around the single incident of death that shook him – Mademba’s death. It can also be linked to one of the primary incidents in A’s life before the war, an incident that made him a man from a boy and became intricately related to how he perceived the trenches during the war.

Critical Acclaim

Diop’s second novel, translated by Anna Mischovakis, won the International Booker Prize in 2021. After its initial release in French, it became an instant bestseller. It also contented as a finalist for four major French literary prizes, Femina, Goncourt, Renaudot, and Medicis, winning the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens in 2018. The translation has also won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the fiction category and the Globe de Cristal Award for the best novel in 2019, among other prizes and a galore of accolades from famous critics worldwide.

Genre – Historical Fiction, Translation, World War I, Literary Fiction

Pages – 160

Publishing House – Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US) / Pushkin Press (UK)


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