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At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop

Sometimes you strongly dislike a book from the very first page, reading on because of stubbornness or the belief that an International Booker prize winner has to have something more than meets the eye. So, I read on.

The plot is this: after the mutilation of Mademba in World War I, Alfa, our narrator, is incapable and unwilling to do what his friend Mademba wishes – to end his suffering. Understanding his mistake, Alfa doesn’t seem to be able to go back to “normal” warfare, he starts severing enemies’ hands, salting, drying and keeping them.

At first this novel seems to be only about the cruelty, racism, savagery people were forced to, anger, aggression, all the horrors of war, but as Diop himself tells us later in the novel, there is often a story behind the story.

I hugely disliked the descriptions of war compared to female sexuality and the description of sex and women in general, I found the comparisons and descriptions like that to be outdated, a part of a past era.

But, I do accept it as a part of our main character, the narrator, his different perspective and upbringing. I found the narrator interesting, a unique voice unheard before. A non-European perspective, a man forced into another man’s war, into another man’s culture and language.

The end makes the whole novel fit together, the anger, the trauma, the violence, the otherness – because there is another story here as well. Mademba’s story, the story of a defeated dead man. As the novel now shifts between two narrators, Alfa the troubled, mentally ill “winner” and Mademba, the dead, the weak, the ugly, we can come to different conclusions. What is happening here? Magic? Sorcery? Ghosts? Or merely mental illness? I would go with the latter. Was the nurse raped and murdered? By Alfa or by Mademba? And is there a special connection between Mademba Diop and the author, sharing their last name? Does the fusion of Mademba and Alfa mean that Alfa’s consciousness is divided? That the trauma of war made him internalize his dead friend?

I would conclude this is a story firstly about trauma and ways of dealing with it, what war and its consequence: mental illness does to people.

Not a style I liked, I found it a bit too crude, not a favourite, but an interesting novel nonetheless.

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