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Within the trenches with the colonizer

French Army African infantrymen had lunch in their trench in France in 1915. Corbis via Getty Images

Ten million soldiers died in action in World War I, many of them in the trenches. The large-scale carnage changed not only the way Europe ruled and viewed arms, but also the way people made art. Mechanized brutality made earlier expressions such as realism obsolete. The subsequent reckoning with industrialized warfare and insatiable nationalism ushered in movements such as Dadaism, Futurism, and the canon of literary modernism, and influenced writers in the Anglosphere from Virginia Woolf to T.S. Eliot.

However, the modern canon that emerged from the trenches largely excludes the roughly 2.3 million Africans who supported the French and British armies. (It also excludes hundreds of thousands of non-white soldiers and workers from the colonized world, including many Indians and nearly 400,000 black Americans.) In his treatise, "La Force Noire," French General Charles Mangin directed recruitment efforts from the strategic "reservoir" of the colonies for men who work to ensure that Senegalese soldiers in particular are sent to the front. Now, over a century later, French Senegalese writer David Diop treats the experiences of West Africans who served and died in the trenches in his novel At Night All Blood Is Black, overdue and cutting-edge. The translation by Anna Moschovakis, first published in France in 2018, marks Diop's English-language debut.

At night all blood is black David Diop, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 160 pages, $ 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 Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, Diop emphasizes the tragedy with bitter irony. Filtered through the perspective of an African soldier around 1914, this gallows humor mocks not only the absurdities of war, but also racism. At night, however, there is ultimately more ghost story than hysterical Picaresque. It is a deeply violent and gentle book at the same time. Diop connects the modernist monologue with the myth and examines the disturbing outer limits of what we do to others and what war can do to us.

The exploitation of colonized peoples for active service was a point of contention among European powers during World War I. In the absence of the colonial reach of France and Britain, Germany opposed French deployment of African soldiers in Europe, but emphasized race rather than imperial disadvantage. No man's land should not be integrated – regardless of the fact that Germany has accepted 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 targeted white audiences in the United States, and that propaganda caught on after the 1918 armistice when the French intended to reverse racial hierarchies – send Africans to occupy the Aryans – in order to implement it to move forward humiliate Germany. The deployment of African soldiers became a point of negotiation in the Versailles Treaty. The Germans demanded not to send colored soldiers to occupy the Rhineland.

When France was already sending Senegalese soldiers, Germany launched its “Black Horror on the Rhine” campaign with racist brochures and cartoons that fell victim to local fears. Across the Atlantic, the same fear condemned to death thousands of black men in the United States, including some of the 400,000 African American soldiers who served during World War I, through torture and lynching in southern Jim Crow. Unsurprisingly, the German campaign generated particular events that sparked sympathy in the United States and Britain, which reinforced support from women's leagues and weekly print newspapers across the political spectrum.

The weapon of the breed has since made mainstream World War I history. However, it is the literature of the era that deals with the psychological rupture of the collapse of civilization. Here Diop fills a crucial gap: What does it mean for a Senegalese soldier in the trenches to put himself in the shoes of the enemy, even if distorted? Who is the enemy for this soldier anyway? The Germans, the French or the colonizer in general?

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

Diops narrator Alfa Ndiaye, a young recruit from rural Senegal, is part of an interwar tradition of mischievous soldier protagonists, a literary line that includes Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night and the Czech satire The Good Soldier Svejk – World War I Tell of Hysteria, unreliable narrative and alienation from a world that has lost all sense of reason. Diop cited Celine's magnum opus and letters from French soldiers as influences. They are suitable designs for the unsentimental study of human nature through the novel under extreme stress.

At night, All Blood Is Black expands and reworks this recognizable style into something unique. It is a leaner, more economical book than that of Celine or Hasek, more haunted than antique. The narrative is language-driven and expressionless in view of the brutality, but Diop's irony emphasizes the cooling off of the tragic-comic. And while previous responses to World War I emphasize the futility of life in the face of the horrors of war, At Night insists on a twisted logic of surrender: the plot is based on obsession with the idea that one's actions and inactivity have consequences for others. Alfa Ndiaye differs from a Josef Svejk or Ferdinand Bardamu in its deep sense of intent. He's a madman with a clear purpose, and what unfolds is a dark story of friendship, trauma, and revenge.

Like Celine before him, Diop filters the madness of war through the melancholy maxims of a low-ranking soldier-narrator who has abandoned politeness. Diop, who was born in Paris and grew up in Senegal, has none of the reputation baggage of the anti-Semitic, fascist and frankly unpleasant Céline, whose serious personal and political omissions have clouded the reception of his work. But there is a darkness in Diop's new novel that some readers may find difficult to bear. Readers' appreciation for At Night All Blood Is Black will likely depend on whether or not they agree with Shakespeare's idea that the madman in a mad world is best equipped to diagnose – if not solve – our deepest illnesses. After the recent election cycle in the US, Americans should be especially prepared to recognize this.

The novel begins on the battlefield next to the narrator's wounded best friend, Mademba Diop, whose agonizing death is described factually. Mademba asks Alfa to get him out of his misery by slitting his throat, but Alfa doesn't. The slim, dense novel goes on to atone for this failure of friendship and to document how such trauma pervades the mind. "If I had been then what I have become today," says Alfa, "I would have killed him the first time he asked, his head is turned to me, his left hand in my right."

At this opening, too, some viewers could quickly write off At Night All Blood Is Black as too challenging or depressing. But there is great beauty here. Diops sentences have a tidal quality and contain phrases that are carried smoothly with repetition. A single observation often spans a chapter and shifts over time. “God's truth, I believe that God always lags behind us,” says Alfa, and later adds, “This is war: It is when God lags behind people's music, when he cannot untangle the threads of so many destinies at the same time . ”

If a madman puts the point of the narrative before the story, he can offer an account of his own madness. After Mademba's death, Alfa brings back a severed German hand every time he enters enemy territory. His comrades cheer him first, impressed by his bravery. Little do they know that every trophy is actually a re-enactment of Mademba's death. Alfa sneaks up on his German victims, escapes them and lets them die briefly before he finishes them off with a knife: “(T) If I slit his throat clean and human. All blood is black at night. “It is the grace of a madman: a chance to give the enemy the relief he denied his friend.

The repetition of Alfa's language and actions reflects the rhythm of repeatedly getting out of the trench into enemy territory. When he brings back his fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh hands, his comrades begin to worry. "The white soldiers started to say – I could read it in their eyes -" This chocolat is really strange. "The others, Chocolat soldiers from West Africa like me, started to say – and I read it in their eyes too – & # 39; That Alfa Ndiaye from the village of Gandiol near Saint-Louis in Senegal is strange. “The same act, repeated enough times, leaves him behind a hero and a monster at the same time.

The juxtaposition of white and black, often in the same sentence, serves a similar purpose, emphasizing and undercutting the hegemony of the color line in the ditch. Alfa has clear eyes about the racism of its captain – in an echo from Mangin the Chocolats are told to "play the savage" – and yet the syntax often suggests a grim universalism: "At night all blood is black."

Senegalese infantry repel an attack in France during the First World War. Photo12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Throughout the night, Diop documents how the French exploited racial fears both on and beyond the battlefield. Before Alfa digests a herb victim, he registers in his blue eyes "a panic of … what he was told about me and what he believed without ever seeing me." The West African recruits, many of whom neither read nor speak French, are asked to adopt racial stereotypes as a military strategy. Far from a war that was waged exclusively between European powers, the First World War focused on imperialism and the logic associated with it.

Diop impressively succeeds in overcoming the geographical claustrophobia of his subject. The entire narrative is located between the “front” (active struggle) and the “rear” (convalescence) of the war and yet spends as much time in Senegal as on the battlefield.

After Alfa brings back his seventh hand, his comrades suspect him of madness and he is sent to a field hospital to recover. There, Alfa is managed by the heuristically named Dr. François and the nurse Mademoiselle François. Trapped in 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 herd.

Together the boys went through traditional rituals of growing up, and it was a combination of Mademba's ambition and the disappearance of Alfa's mother that motivated them to go to war. (While some African soldiers volunteered for the French army, influenced by promises of wages and possible emigration, many more were drafted.) These memories add texture to the novel, interpolating the horrors of war with scenes of childhood in the Senegalese Country. Alfa’s remorse towards Mademba remains a consistent and powerful line. They were in love with the same girl who, on their last night before leaving for France, took pretty Alfa as their lover over the skinny mademba. Alfa’s failure to cut Mademba’s throat recalls that original betrayal: "To die without knowing all the joys of the body is not fair. Poor, incomplete Mademba."

Without giving too much away, some impressive formal gymnastics towards the end allows the thoughts of the two friends to be united in a single body. From the point of view of someone like Dr. François, the obvious amalgamation of Alfa and Mademba (“a little voice in my head”) could be like schizophrenia. But the novel has earlier pointed to the tradition of the Dëmms, or magicians, who offer an alternative interpretation. Either Alfa succumbs to psychosis as his consciousness begins to blend with Mademba's – or the Dëmms' eerie practice of “devouring souls” has become both a curse and a profound act of friendship: the blending of two souls into one physical form when Alfa lends his body to his friend.

But the way Alfa divides his body causes further violence. A climatic sex scene with an ambiguously affirmative Mademoiselle François is told twice, once from Mademba's point of view, once from Alfa 's point of view.

Misogyny is a staple food for war narratives. But at night, All Blood Is Black takes the resonances of war and rape one step further. Crossing boundaries – inside and outside – is a profound idea of ​​the novel, one with a sexual connotation. Diop suggests that war is the ultimate penetration of the body by machines and the mind by terror. Only Mademba's death – his "inside outside" – says Alfa that his own mind is "open enough to let me see what is hidden there". And what is hiding there may be Mademba herself.

The last meeting with Mademoiselle François weighed heavily on too many interpretations. It's a rape, an act of war, a national revenge on the French, and a self-confident game with racial fear that fueled propaganda campaigns like Germany's Black Horror on the Rhine. It's also a twisted favor for a friend: a chance for Mademba, lurking somewhere in Alfa's mind, to finally lose his virginity. Diop's ambition is admirable here, but the interpretations compete and urge attention as the novel rushes towards its end.

Overall, however, At Night All Blood Is Black is a formidable replay of the oldest tales of the looting of war. The emphasis on friendship, plunder and reconciliation goes back to the Odyssey. With genre-sweeping plot changes and a voice that is unique to him, Diop transforms these subjects into a more haunted psychology and envisions a perspective that too often emerges from the epistolic evidence that inspired the idea for the book. Like all letters from the soldiers home, At Night is deeply personal, special, intimate and also a kind of historical document. Diop backdated a Senegalese commentary on existential calamity that, according to the existing canon of trenches, belongs 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 cool beauty of the Styx River, and the end of its wizard makes it completely different. In an Anglophone literary sphere that critics have accused of simplifying the novel's moral scheme and signaling too clearly where the reader's sympathies should lie, At Night goes explicitly and refreshingly against the grain. In the ethics of war, Diop suggests, nothing is entirely black or white. There is only madness through and through.

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