Foreign Policy

Within the Trenches With the Colonizer

African infantrymen of the French Army lunch in their trench In France in 1915. Corbis via Getty Images

Ten million soldiers died fighting in World War I, many of them in the trenches. The large-scale slaughter permanently changed not only the way Europe governed and considered weaponry, but also how people made art. Mechanized brutality rendered former modes of expression like realism obsolete. The subsequent reckoning with industrialized warfare and voracious nationalism ushered in movements such as Dadaism, Futurism, and the canon of literary modernism, influencing writers in the Anglosphere from Virginia Woolf to T.S. Eliot.

The modernist canon that emerged from the trenches, however, largely excludes the approximately 2.3 million Africans who supported the French and British armies. (It also excludes hundreds of thousands of nonwhite soldiers and laborers from the colonized world, many of them Indian, as well as nearly 400,000 Black Americans.) In his treatise “La Force Noire,” French Gen. Charles Mangin spearheaded the effort to recruit from the colonies’ strategic “reservoir” of men, campaigning for Senegalese soldiers in particular to be sent to the front. Now, over a century later, the French Senegalese writer David Diop gives a long-overdue, high-modernist treatment to the experience of the West Africans who served and died in the trenches in his novel At Night All Blood Is Black. First published in France in 2018, the translation by Anna Moschovakis marks Diop’s English-language debut.

At Night All Blood Is Black, David Diop, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 160 pp., $25, November 2020 (Translated from French by Anna Moschovakis)

As in many of the best novels of active combat, such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, Diop accentuates tragedy with bitter irony. Filtered through the perspective of an African soldier around 1914, this gallows humor lampoons not only the absurdities of war, but also racism. At Night, however, is ultimately more ghost story than hysterical picaresque. It is at once a deeply violent and gentle book. Blending modernist monologue with myth, Diop explores the disturbing outer limits of what we do to others, and of what war can do to us.

The exploitation of colonized peoples for active duty was a point of contention among European powers in World War I. Lacking the colonial reach of France and Britain, Germany objected to the French deployment of African soldiers in Europe, though it emphasized race rather than imperial disadvantage. No man’s land, it argued, shouldn’t be integrated—never mind that Germany incorporated both African soldiers and German officers into its “Schutztruppe,” which was charged with defending German territories in East Africa. Germany’s complaints about the presence of African soldiers in Europe appealed especially to white audiences in the United States, and this propaganda gained traction after the Armistice in 1918, when the French intended to reverse racial hierarchies—sending Africans to occupy Aryans—in order to further humiliate Germany. The deployment of African soldiers became a bargaining point in the Treaty of Versailles, with the Germans requesting that no soldiers of color be sent to occupy the Rhineland.

When France sent Senegalese soldiers anyway, Germany launched its “Black Horror on the Rhine” campaign, with racist pamphlets and cartoons that preyed on local fears. Across the Atlantic, the same anxiety sentenced thousands of Black men in the United States to death by torture and lynching in the Jim Crow South—including some of the 400,000 African American soldiers who served during World War I. Unsurprisingly, the German campaign roused special sympathy in the United States and Britain, galvanizing support from women’s leagues and print weeklies across the political spectrum.

The weaponization of race has since been incorporated into mainstream histories of World War I. It is the literature of the era, however, that addresses the psychic break of watching civilization collapse. Here, Diop fills a crucial gap: What does it mean for a Senegalese soldier in the trenches to empathize, however contortedly, with the enemy? For this soldier, who even is the enemy? The Germans, the French, or the colonizer at large?

A postcard and posters from World War I feature African soldiers in the French Army.Getty Images

Diop’s narrator, Alfa Ndiaye, a young recruit from rural Senegal, belongs to an interwar tradition of roguish soldier protagonists, a literary lineage that includes Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night and the Czech satire The Good Soldier Svejk—World War I tales inflected with hysteria, unreliable narration, and alienation from a world that has lost all sense of reason. Diop has cited Céline’s magnum opus and French soldiers’ letters as influences. They are apt blueprints for the novel’s unsentimental study of human nature under the utmost duress.

At Night All Blood Is Black extends and revises this recognizable style into something unique. It’s a leaner, sparer book than Céline’s or Hasek’s, more haunted than antic. The narrative is voice-driven and deadpan in the face of brutality, but Diop’s irony accents the chilling over the tragicomic. And while earlier responses to World War I emphasize the meaninglessness of life in the face of wartime horrors, At Night insists on a twisted logic of devotion: The plot is predicated on an obsession with the idea that one’s actions and inactions hold consequences for others. Alfa Ndiaye distinguishes himself from a Josef Svejk or Ferdinand Bardamu with his deep sense of purpose. He is a madman with a clear-cut goal, and what unfolds is a dark story of friendship, trauma, and revenge.

Like Céline before him, Diop filters the madness of war through the melancholy maxims of a low-ranking soldier-narrator who has parted ways with civility. Diop, who was born in Paris and raised in Senegal, has none of the reputational baggage of the anti-Semitic, fascist, and frankly unpleasant Céline, whose serious personal and political failings have tarnished the reception of his work. But there is a darkness to Diop’s new novel that some readers may find hard to stomach. Reader appreciation for At Night All Blood Is Black will likely depend on whether one agrees with the Shakespearean idea that in a mad world, the madman is best equipped to diagnose—if not to solve—our deepest illnesses. After the recent U.S. election cycle, it is an idea that Americans should be especially primed to recognize.

The novel begins on the battlefield, beside narrator Alfa’s wounded best friend, Mademba Diop, whose agonizing death is described in matter-of-fact terms. Mademba begs Alfa to put him out of his misery by slitting his throat, but Alfa doesn’t. The slim, dense novel proceeds as a quest to atone for this failure of friendship, documenting how such trauma works its way through the mind. “If I had been then what I’ve become today,” Alfa says, “I would have killed him the first time he asked, his head turned toward me, his left hand in my right.”

Again, with this opening, some audiences could be quick to write off At Night All Blood Is Black as too challenging or depressing. But there is great beauty here. Diop’s sentences have a tidal quality, carrying in phrases worn smooth with repetition. A single observation often extends through a chapter, shifting as it goes. “God’s truth, I believe that God always lags behind us,” Alfa says, adding later, “That’s war: it’s when God lags behind the music of men, when he can’t untangle the threads of so many fates at the same time.”

Placing the point of narration ahead of the story allows a madman to offer an account of his own madness. After Mademba’s death, each time Alfa enters enemy territory, he brings back a severed German hand. His comrades cheer him at first, awed by his bravery. Little do they know that each trophy is in fact a reenactment of Mademba’s death. Sneaking up on his German victims, Alfa disembowels them, letting them die just a little before finishing them off with a knife: “[T]hen I slit his throat, cleanly, humanely. At night, all blood is black.” It is a madman’s mercy: a chance to bestow upon the enemy the relief he denied his friend.

The repetition of Alfa’s speech and actions echoes the rhythm of surging again and again out of the trench and into enemy territory. It’s when he brings back his fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh hands that his comrades start to worry. “The white soldiers were beginning to say—I could read it in their eyes—‘This Chocolat is really strange.’ The others, Chocolat soldiers from West Africa like me, began to say—and I also read it in their eyes—‘This Alfa Ndiaye from the village of Gandiol near Saint-Louis in Senegal is strange.” The same act, repeated enough times, leaves him at once a hero and a monster.

The juxtaposition of white and Black, often in the same sentence, serves a similar purpose, both emphasizing and undercutting the hegemony of the color line in the trench. Alfa is clear-eyed about his captain’s racism—in an echo of Mangin, the Chocolats are told “to play the savage”—and yet the syntax often points toward a grim universalism: “At night, all blood is black.”

Senegalese infantrymen repel an assault in France during World War I. Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Throughout At Night, Diop documents how the French exploited racial fears, both on the battlefield and beyond. Before disemboweling a Kraut victim, Alfa registers in his blue eyes “a panicked fear of … what he’s been told about me, and what he’s believed without ever seeing me.” The West African recruits, many of whom neither read nor speak French, are asked to adopt racial stereotype as military strategy. Far from a war waged exclusively between European powers, World War I had imperialism and its attendant logic at its core.

Impressively, Diop manages to transcend the geographic claustrophobia of his subject matter. The entire narrative is bookended between the “Front” (active combat) and the “Back” (convalescence) of the war, and yet it spends as much time in Senegal as on the battlefield.

After Alfa brings back his seventh hand, his comrades suspect him of insanity, and he is sent to recover at a field hospital. There, Alfa is treated by the heuristically named Dr. François and nurse Mademoiselle François. Confined to a hospital bed, his memories wander to his home village and his early friendship with Mademba. As part of his psychiatric treatment, he draws three pictures: one of his mother, one of Mademba, and one of his seven hands. It is revealed that Alfa’s mother was kidnapped by Moors and sold into sex slavery, after which Mademba’s family generously brought Alfa into the fold.

Together, the boys passed through traditional coming-of-age rituals, and it was a combination of Mademba’s ambition and Alfa’s mother’s disappearance that motivated them to go to war. (While some African soldiers volunteered for the French Army, swayed by the promise of wages and possible emigration, many more were conscripted.) Through these memories the novel gains texture, interpolating the horrors of war with scenes of boyhood in the Senegalese countryside. Alfa’s contrition toward Mademba remains a consistent and powerful throughline. They were in love with the same girl, who on their last night before leaving for France took the handsome Alfa as her lover over the scrawny Mademba. Alfa’s failure to slit Mademba’s throat recalls this original betrayal: “To die without knowing all of the pleasures of the body isn’t fair. Poor, incomplete Mademba.”

Without giving too much away, some impressive formal gymnastics toward the end allow for a union of the two friends’ minds in a single body. From the perspective of someone like Dr. François, the apparent melding of Alfa and Mademba (“a little voice in my head”) might read like schizophrenia. But the novel has hinted earlier at the tradition of dëmms, or sorcerers, which offer an alternative interpretation. Either Alfa succumbs to psychosis as his consciousness begins to blend with Mademba’s—or the dëmms’ sinister practice of “soul-devouring” has become at once a curse and a profound act of friendship: the mingling of two souls in a single physical form, as Alfa lends his body to his friend.

But the way in which Alfa shares his body causes further violence. A climactic sex scene with an ambiguously consenting Mademoiselle François is recounted twice, once from Mademba’s perspective, once from Alfa’s.

Misogyny is a staple of war narratives. But At Night All Blood Is Black takes the resonances of war and rape a step further. The crossing of boundaries—of inside and outside—is a profound idea in the novel, one with a sexual connotation. Diop suggests that war is the ultimate penetration, of the body by machinery and of the mind by horrors witnessed. It isn’t until Mademba’s death—his “insides outside”—that Alfa says his own mind “opened enough to let me see what was hiding there.” And what’s hiding there is, perhaps, Mademba himself.

The final encounter with Mademoiselle François strains under the weight of too many interpretations. It is a rape, an act of war, a national revenge against the French and a self-conscious play on the racial anxiety that fueled propaganda campaigns such as Germany’s Black Horror on the Rhine. It’s also a twisted favor for a friend: a chance for Mademba, who lurks somewhere within Alfa’s mind, to finally lose his virginity. Diop’s ambition here is admirable, but the interpretations compete with each other, jostling for attention as the novel rushes toward its end.

As a whole, however, At Night All Blood Is Black is a stunning iteration of the very oldest stories about the plunders of war. The emphasis on friendship, marauding, and atonement harken back to the Odyssey. With genre-bending plot twists and a voice uniquely his own, Diop straitjackets these themes into a more haunted psychology, reimagining a perspective too often elided from the epistolary evidence that helped inspire the idea for the book; like all soldiers’ letters home, At Night is deeply personal, particular, intimate, and also a kind of historical document. Diop has backdated a Senegalese comment on existential calamity that the existing canon of the trenches would suggest belonged exclusively to Europeans.

At Night All Blood Is Black is not for the faint of heart. But for long stretches, the narrative flows along with the chilly beauty of the river Styx, and its sorcerer’s ending makes it utterly distinct. To an Anglophone literary sphere that critics have accused of simplifying the novel’s moral schema, signaling too clearly where the reader’s sympathies should lie, At Night runs explicitly, and refreshingly, against the grain. In the ethics of war, Diop suggests, nothing is quite black or white. There is only madness, through and through.

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