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“I know, I understand, I shouldn’t have. In the world before, I wouldn’t have dared, but in today’s world, God’s truth, I allow myself the unthinkable.”

 


Sometimes, a book lets you know right from the first page that it’s something special.

At Night All Blood Is Black is a novella by David Diop, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis. There’s no shortage of hype surrounding ANABIB. It’s been nominated for (and won) a slew of awards, including the Prix Goncourt in 2018 and the International Booker Prize in 2021. For me, this poetically brutal work of historical fiction (and, arguably, horror) absolutely lives up to these accolades. Combining the restrained but searingly insightful prose of the best modern poetry with the rich character work of Otessa Moshfegh, ANABIB is one you may have to be in the right mindframe to stomach, but which won’t easily leave you.

The story of a Senegalese WWI soldier, Alfa Ndiaye, and his gradual slippage into psychosis, ANABIB uses the horrors of its historical setting to probe both the erasure of Black lives (and deaths) in its historical context, as well as the contemporary legacies of historical inequity and colonialism. Following the brutal disembowelment of Alfa’s best friend, Mademba Diop, Alfa plunges into a PTSD-fueled quest for meaning that takes jarringly violent form in the no man’s land between the French and German trenches. Even more traumatic, perhaps, than Mademba’s death, is Alfa’s inability to grant him mercy as he begs for that same last favour. That failure to grant mercy, perceived by Alfa as a kind of cowardly cruelty, stirs in him a desire both for vengeance and for the ability to reenact Mademba’s death with an alternative outcome. Each night, Alfa sneaks across no man’s land and captures and disembowels an enemy soldier. What Alfa was unable to do for Mademba, however, he is able to grant the blue-eyed enemies he captures. When Alfa returns with gruesome trophies from the men he kills–severed hands that he mummifies and stores in his home trench–his fellow soldiers at first rejoice at his courage and ferocity, but gradually become disturbed by Alfa’s behaviour.

“Up to the third hand, I was a war hero, beginning with the fourth I became a dangerous madman, a bloodthirsty savage. God’s truth, that’s how things go, that’s how the world is: each thing is double.”

Aside from Diop’s beautifully restrained, careful prose, what stands out most is his character work. There’s not a line that doesn’t ooze with Alfa’s voice, and at times the point of view feels so close it’s almost a stream-of-consciousness. This intimacy allows Diop to collapse any clear divides between Alfa’s mindset and that of the audience. Alfa continues to be tormented by guilt, all the while compounding that same guilt through his reenactments, and as Alfa’s grasp on reality, fantasy, past, and present begins to fracture, we fracture with it. There’s a rawness and a dark profundity to Alfa’s musings. You feel at times as though he’s touched on something disturbingly true, only to be presented with a sense of his words and reflections as suspect and dishonest. This dualism is one of ANABIB‘S central motifs, brought attention to again and again throughout the work.

“I was now free to listen no longer, to no longer obey the voices that command us not to be human when we must.”

Is Alfa’s representation of events entirely accurate? Is he a crusader-hero as his fellow soldiers initially receive him, or a sorcerer-soldier as they grow to fear he’s become? The answer appears to be both/and, or both/neither. The novella seems to excoriate simplistic readings of morality and of its own events. Alfa is at once both horrified and transformed by the violence he enacts, while also being sustained by it as it provides a retroactive meaning for what was done to Mademba.

“They don’t think much, but when they think, they think in dualistic terms. I’ve read in their eyes. They think devourers of human insides are good so long as they devour only the enemy’s insides.”

As the narrative progresses, more and more Alfa appears to fictionalize both himself and the events of his life. In the trenches, this manifests through his embodiment of the “savagery” he and his fellow Africans are already expected to exhibit by his White peers. There’s a defiance and a tragedy to how Alfa embraces stereotype in the context of the brutality and desperation of warfare. On the one hand, fulfilling the expectation of “excessive” violence lends Alfa a foolhardy bravery and sense of immortality or apartness (he ceases, almost, to be himself, an individual, in favour of representing an archetype playing a role), while on the other it serves as a scathing critique of the ways in which racism can become internalized and how White violences are read differently than violence enacted by people of colour. Nonetheless, Alfa is quite aware of the dynamics at play in terms of how he’s viewed by the other soldiers, including by his fellow Africans. The White legacy of attributing monstrosity to Black bodies and cultures is here laid bare to horrify the audience, all while the visceral reality of the real brutality enacted upon African and colonized peoples by White imperialists is alluded to through the horrors Alfa repurposes. It’s notable, for instance, that none of the violence Alfa engages in finds its root in Senegalese culture so much as it is a reification of the spectre of African violence feared by the French and German soldiers Alfa is surrounded by. Alfa recreates himself as myth made flesh, and indeed, as his fellow African soldiers come to fear him, both they and Alfa come to read his identity through the lens of West African folklore and religion.

“Looking into my enemy’s blue eyes, I often see a panicked fear of death, of savagery, of rape, of cannibalism. I see in his eyes what he’s been told about me, and what he’s believed without ever seeing me.”

Rather than providing easy answers (Diop never presents Alfa’s killings as “good,” either for him or those around him), ANABIB instead raises questions about how violence is categorized, and more specifically, how it impacts the minds of those it touches. There’s never a point at which Alfa’s situation is understood as uncritically heroic, rather, the text is interested in how heroism is itself a kind of trap that snares both those who believe in it and those who come to bear its mantel. When Alfa is eventually remanded for psyhiatric evaluation, his sense of self further deteriorates. It’s here where we learn a little more about both Alfa and Mademba’s childhood and adolescence back in Senegal, and where some of ANABIB‘s foundational truths begin to destabilize. Diop emphasizes in the novella’s final chapters the ambiguity of testimony and perception, causing the reader to question what they’ve read so far, even down to whether or not Alfa may be the man he claims (or, if he was once Alfa, whether he can be called Alfa any longer).

“To translate is never simple. To translate is to betray at the borders, it’s to cheat, it’s to trade one sentence for another. To translate is one of the only human activities in which one is required to lie about the details to convey the truth at large.”

In short, ANABIB is a powerful story that offers questions rather than answers, and which easily hypnotizes with its clever use of narrative and its subtle but striking prose.

Steve Hugh Westenra

Steve is a trans author of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (basically, if it’s weird he writes it). He grew up on the eldritch shores of Newfoundland, Canada, and currently lives and works in (the slightly less eldritch) Montreal. He holds advanced degrees in Russian Literature, Medieval Studies, and Religious Studies. As a reader, Steve’s tastes are eclectic. He enjoys anything that could be called speculative, including fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, but has been known to enjoy a good mystery as well as literary fiction. He’s always excited to try something new or that pushes boundaries, particularly from marginalized authors. Steve is passionate about queer representation, Late Antiquity, and spiders.

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