book review: At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
FSG, 2020

Set in the trenches during World War I, At Night All Blood is Black tells the story of a Senegalese man, Alfa Ndiaye, haunted by the fact that he was unable to mercy-kill his best friend after a serious injury. He then descends into a sort of madness as thoughts of loyalty and cowardice torment him, along with the futility of the racist pantomime he’s forced to take part in — the French would utilize racist stereotypes of African soldiers, arming them with machetes to scare off the Germans — an identity which Alfa both rejects and internalizes. 

This book is violent and graphic and visceral but it’s also sublime. Anna Moschovakis’s translation is stunning and Diop’s writing thrums with a rhythm that can only be described as mesmerizing — reading this book is like being in a trance that you can’t snap out of. The repetition might be an annoyance to some readers, but it was really an asset for me and I felt that it drove home both the monotony of trench warfare and the cyclical nature of Ndiaye’s thoughts as his mental state deteriorates. 

I read this book a couple of months back and to be honest with you I can’t remember why I gave it 4 stars instead of 5; probably more of a gut feeling than anything, as looking back I can’t think of a single thing it did wrong. It’s a deeply, uncomfortably human book about an oft-overlooked piece of WWI history — not an easy read by any means, but really worth spending time with. Genuinely thrilled that this won the International Booker this year.

2 thoughts on “book review: At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

  1. Great review! World War I sometimes seem a bit overlooked in the literary world and even more so any part of it that doesn’t focus on the western experience. This sounds very powerful.


  2. I read it in French (I’m French) and was actually really annoyed by the repetition LOL (as I was before with another novel, it’s just me) but I loved the style. I know the story of the Artilleurs Sénégalais who were sent to fight during the WWI and the long years afterwards they had to fight to be rewarded with the army pension. We study it in school. So I didn’t learn much as for the history part (and unfortunately all the other Empires did the same with their colonies), but his style is really amazing and I loved how he talks about the culture of Senegalese people. His new novel has just come out in France, I’m really looking forward to reading it. It is set during the slave trade and tells the story about a French Botanist who comes to Sénégal to study the plants but hears about this young woman who was able to flee before being sent as a slave to America and he wants to find her. I’m really curious about it ! As for the story of this novel, I also found powerful the turmoil the main character has to go through. What a nightmare.


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