At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop review – war and mental collapse

The International Booker prize winner is a brilliant, shifting tale of a Senegalese soldier’s descent into madness

Winning a big prize can be bittersweet for a writer: now the majority of people who read your book will have sky-high expectations, higher, indeed, than the judges who gave the award. And by the time it won the International Booker prize earlier this month, David Diop’s second novel At Night All Blood Is Black (translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis) had already scooped awards in France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the US. Could this be… the best book ever?

In fact, it’s possible to feel underwhelmed with Diop’s novel at first. It begins in a forceful but repetitive way, hammering over and over the same points in the narrative by Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier in the first world war. He has, “God’s truth”, a horror story to share. It involves the escalation of violence – he has taken to cutting off the hands of dead German troops (“my trench-mates began to fear me after the fourth hand”) – and his descent into madness. “The mad fear nothing. The others […] play at being mad.” Soon, he is believed to be a dëmm, a “devourer of souls”, and spurned by his fellow troops.

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