How War—and Racism—Makes Monsters out of Men

In both World Wars, France used West African “colonial conscripts.” Deployed on the front lines, they were often the first to be killed.

In the trenches of the western front, two Senegalese soldiers—teenagers, childhood friends, and “more-than-brothers” Mademba Diop and Alfa Ndiaye—discover the reality of war. First, Mademba dies, brutally disemboweled by the bayonet of a blue-eyed German soldier; next, Alfa, haunted by his friend’s death and his failure to act when it mattered most, vows vengeance. In David Diop’s novel At Night All Blood Is Black, Mademba’s gruesome death is rehearsed each night, as Alfa sets off into enemy territory in search of the singular kill—a blue-eyed German soldier whom he carefully immobilizes before slitting his throat and severing one of his hands. These he carries back to the French trenches as a trophy, or a talisman. Gradually, Alfa amasses a collection of such appendages: seven in total, mummified hands, which he salts and cures like fish à la Sénégalaise. We learn to count these strange relics along with him—one, two, three … —as Diop dares us to look away.

One after another, these severed German hands thrum out the novel’s obsessional meter; they also punctuate Alfa’s slide into madness, as he is driven forward by a whispering voice inside his head. After the fourth hand, things start to go downhill. Alfa’s trench mates grow uneasy: something is off with this Chocolat soldier, they sneer. As Alfa mordantly notes, “Up to the third hand, I was a war hero, beginning with the fourth, I became a dangerous madman, a bloodthirsty savage.” In war, temporary madness is one thing, Alfa observes, “but when you seem crazy all the time, continuously, without stopping, that’s when you make people afraid.” Some of Alfa’s West African brothers-in-arms soon brand him a dëmm, a soul-eater: in Senegal’s indigenous Wolof culture, these are bloodthirsty witches who feed on men.1

This is why Diop’s novel is not merely a captivating and chilling account of the horrors and intimacies of war. It is especially important, because this novel is told from the rare perspective of a tirailleur sénégalais. These men, like Alfa, were France’s “colonial conscripts”—West African soldiers, mostly Senegalese, who fought in the French army for over a century, during both World Wars.2

In fiction as in life, the tirailleurs were treated horrifically by their French commanders. As the mummified hands pile up, the unit’s leader, Captain Armand, rebukes Alfa and eventually offers him leave. “Your way of waging war is a little too savage,” the captain condescends, “you must be tired.” The captain, meanwhile, has just orchestrated a brutal spectacle of an execution, giving seven mutinous troops a choice between going up over the trenches with their hands bound behind their backs to be obliterated by German artillery, or being shot down by their brothers-in-arms.

Which is more awful: seven brothers-in-arms or seven enemy hands? With biting irony, At Night All Blood Is Black exposes the caprices of war, asking us to consider what forms of violence appear as legitimate and which are deemed barbaric or “mad.”

Originally published in France under the title Frère d’âme (“Soul Brother”; Seuil, 2018), Diop’s novel now is available in a hauntingly lyric English translation by American poet Anna Moschovakis. The English version won this year’s International Booker Prize, making Diop—who was born in France but spent most of his childhood in Senegal—the first French writer to take home the award. The Booker win adds to a list of Diop’s prizes from the French-speaking world, including the Prix Ahmadou-Kourouma and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens.

Diop’s narrator-protagonist, Alfa, is a young tirailleur from Gandiol, a village near Saint-Louis in Northern Senegal. Alfa and his “soul brother,” Mademba, initially dream of the perks their military service on the western front will afford them: the possibility of travel, cushy pensions, the sheen of French citizenship. But, as seen above, reality soon sets in.

Perhaps the most famous portrayal of the tirailleur is Senegalese director and author Ousmane Sembène’s 1988 film Camp de Thiaroye (“The Camp at Thiaroye”). This film revisits a little-known mutiny of West African troops and their massacre by the French at a military base outside Dakar. Diop’s novel brings the figure of the tirailleur into an even darker register, as Alfa narrates his bloody exploits and gradual descent into madness in the first person.

A genre-defying wartime novel—in which hallucinatory violence finds exquisite form—At Night All Blood Is Black is an unsettling and unexpected tale of obsession and madness: the story of one Senegalese soldier’s unraveling. Think Easton Ellis’s American Psycho meets Conrad’s Heart of Darkness meets Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure.

In hypnotic prose, Diop challenges us to see beauty in the macabre. He seduces us with even the most nightmarish of details: oil slicks of blood shining blue-black beneath a disc of moon; steaming entrails glistening darkly, cupped in a war-ravaged body hollowed out like an urn; the fold of the trenches like a giantess’s labia, a gash of earth on the edges of which the theater of war and fates of men play out ad infinitum. From beginning to end, we remain in thrall to our unconventional narrator and under the dark spell of his language.

The novel’s transcendent finale drifts into a kind of otherworldly monologue and brings Diop’s text into another register entirely. (Spoilers to follow.) By the end, Alfa has been transferred to a whitewashed military hospital and placed under the watchful care of a French doctor and his blue-eyed daughter, Mademoiselle François. He has managed to bury his cache of severed hands, which have become too cumbersome to transport and increasingly difficult to hide from prying eyes.

As the novel veers toward its conclusion, Alfa’s narration veers out of control. Amid flashes of lucidity in the hospital, he begins to conflate memories from his childhood and adolescence in Senegal with scenes of war. One moonlit night, he steals into the bedroom of Mademoiselle François and rapes her, thrusting himself “into her womb as if to disembowel her.”

The brutal rape of Mademoiselle François, a disembowelment that recalls Mademba’s death at bayonet point, figures a breaking point in the narrative. From this moment on, Alfa speaks to us in riddles. “They ask me my name,” he says, “but I’m waiting for them to reveal it to me. … I am the beginning and the end. I am the creator and the destroyer. I am double.” He even goes on to recount a traditional Wolof léeb (tale) in miniature: a story about a fickle princess pursued by a bloodthirsty lion-sorcerer (the lion, Alfa tells us earlier, is his family’s totem).

Through the sudden slide into incantatory mysticism, Diop effectively rewrites the postmortem narration at the end of Kane’s bildungsroman Ambiguous Adventure (L’aventure ambiguë, 1961), which is cited as an epigraph to Diop’s text. In the final pages of Kane’s novel, the narrator-protagonist, Samba Diallo, returns to Senegal from France, where he has been sent to study, and is confronted by a local “madman” who stabs him for refusing to pray. The narration shifts to a drifting dialogue with a small voice, presumably Death personified, which the final sequence of At Night All Blood Is Black directly channels.

In fact, the citation from Adventure used as an epigraph to Diop’s novel comes from this precise moment in Kane’s text. In the original French, it reads: “Je suis deux voix simultanées. L’une s’éloigne et l’autre croît.”3 Moschovakis renders this as “I am two simultaneous voices, one long, the other short.” But a better translation might be, “I follow two simultaneous voices. One grows distant, the other louder.” Read aloud, it could just as easily mean, “I take two simultaneous paths,” since “voice” (voix) and “path” (voie) are homonyms—as are the forms of the verb “to be” and “to follow.”

Diop offers a trenchant literary reckoning for hundreds of thousands of young West African soldiers left for dead on the misty plains of Western Europe. In this, the novel is also a requiem.

This is the kind of “doubleness” of the language in the original—a constant play on meaning—that inevitably evades translation. In Diop’s novelistic universe, everything is twinned, especially language, which constantly smuggles in hidden meaning. The French title, Frère d’âme (Soul brother), is an example of this. It is a breath away from the expression frère d’arme, or “brother in arms.” Even the novel’s most central motifs—the trenches, the severed hands—converge as if by a trick of language. In French, tranchée means both “trench” and “slit” or “severed,” thus also designating Alfa’s bloody nocturnal ritual.

Indeed, there is second language hiding behind Diop’s French: Wolof, which the author grew up speaking. Diop has said he wanted to imbue Alfa’s French with hints of Wolof, and the texture of his prose in the original reflects this. Alfa’s narrative tics—frequent repetitions such as “I know, I understand,” and “God’s truth”—evoke the repetitive structure and discursive markers characteristic of most Wolof narratives. At points, they read as literal translations from Wolof.

Throughout, Diop underscores the apparent impossibility of the novel’s own narration in French, since Alfa only understands Wolof and relies on others—such as Mademba (who, like Kane’s protagonist, was educated in French school), or the seasoned infantryman Ibrahima Seck (who speaks French)—to translate for him. The novel’s final, shocking twist is arguably a clever means of resolving this impasse. Just as the novel closes—indeed, in the final paragraph—the true narrator reveals himself. It is Mademba Diop, speaking to us from beyond the grave.

Diop is clearly sensitive to the strain and pull of literary language—privy to its subversive potential. As if winking at us (and at his future translator), he writes near the end of the novel, “To translate is never simple. To translate is to betray at the borders, it’s to cheat [maquignonner], it’s to trade one sentence for another. … To translate is to risk understanding … that the truth about a word is not single, but double.”

Ultimately, At Night All Blood Is Black is as unflinching in its language as it is in its unearthing of the colonial past and the racist history of France’s legendary force noire.4 The novel may take place on the western front, but Alfa’s narration frequently draws us back to the Senegal River basin, and to the beginnings of French machinations in West Africa.

At one point, Alfa even recalls a high-stakes argument between his father and the village leader, Abdou Thiam, about the viability of peanut farming and a credit economy. For anyone familiar with the history of French colonizing presence in West Africa, the allusion is clear. We are witnessing—from the perspective of those most affected—the beginning of France’s 19th-century experiments with “agricultural colonization.” These were meant to supplement and, eventually, replace France’s increasingly untenable reliance on the labor of enslaved individuals in the wake of the Saint-Domingue/Haitian revolution and the interdiction of the Atlantic slave trade.

This is where the story of the tirailleur begins, in fact. The tirailleurs mostly are known and remembered for their role in World Wars I and II. Even so, the battalion was created much earlier, in 1857, by Louis Faidherbe, then the governor of Senegal. At the time, Faidherbe had conceived of a Black army of colonized Africans who would bolster the French military presence in West Africa, and serve as a pillar of colonial rule in the region.

The history of the tirailleurs, in other words, is indissociable from French colonial expansion and French slavery, in particular. Even after slavery officially was abolished, for the second time, in France’s colonies (1848), the French navy and military continued to purchase enslaved Africans through the rachat system, whereby captive Africans were purchased from West African slavers on 10-year indenture contracts.5 Many of the first tirailleurs were slaves, as Myron Echenbreg’s pathbreaking social history Colonial Conscripts (1991) has shown. About three-quarters of the African soldiers in the French army during World War I were of slave origin.6

From the outset, then, the creation of the tirailleurs was entangled with the kinds of racist dehumanization that subtended the French colonial project: namely, the idea that African life was disposable. Diop’s narrator-protagonist Alfa highlights this, for instance, when he notes that the French deliberately outfitted the tirailleurs with machetes to play into racist stereotypes of savage and subhuman Africans as a means to intimidate the enemy. Often, the tirailleurs were positioned as the vanguard in attacks—the first to be seen, the first to be killed.

The human cost of this history cannot be overstated. Today, in the French village of Chasselay, near Lyon, there is an immense tata (in Wolof, a small fort and burial site), where the remains of nearly two hundred tirailleurs are buried. In 1940, they were massacred by the 10th Panzer Division of the German army. Whereas white soldiers were imprisoned, African soldiers were hunted down, subjected to brutal deaths, and their bodies desecrated.

Without heavy-handedness, Diop suggests that the Germans are not the only “blue-eyed enemy” in this narrative, nor even the most dangerous. French hands are black with African blood. Alfa’s unravelling can be read as a powerful figure for the culture of death sown by a colonial project at its apogee (Senegal would not gain independence until 1960, almost two decades after the end of World War II). Diop offers a trenchant literary reckoning for hundreds of thousands of young West African soldiers left for dead on the misty plains of Western Europe. In this, the novel is also a requiem.

At the same time, At Night All Blood Is Black aims at capturing something larger than any single war: its subject is the hellscape of war itself. Although the descriptions of trench warfare and weaponry in the novel are all suggestive of WWI, Diop has expunged any obvious temporal markers from his text. The book charts an ongoing history of violence—one that both precedes and succeeds Alfa Ndiaye.

Ultimately, Diop’s book is far from being a “historical novel,” in any traditional sense. Rather, At Night All Blood Is Black is an allegory about how war makes monsters out of men, about men at the limits of their humanity.


This article was commissioned by Tara Menon. icon

  1. Adding yet another valence to the novel’s preoccupation with eyes, a dëmm is said to have a second set of invisible eyes, diametrically opposed to his or her real eyes, on the back of the head
  2. Myron J. Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa, 1857–1960 (Currey, 1991).
  3. Cheikh Hamidou Kane, L’aventure ambiguë (Julliard, 1961), p. 189.
  4. Éric Deroo and Antoine Champeaux, La force noire: Gloire et infortunes d’une légende coloniale (Tallandier, 2006).
  5. Céline Flory, De l’esclavage à la liberté forcée: Histoire des travailleurs africains engagés dans la Caraïbe française au XIXe siècle (Karthala, 2015).
  6. See Echenberg’s chapter “Slaves into Soldiers,” in Colonial Conscripts (1991).
Featured image: Senegalese Tirailleurs in World War II, circa 1940. Wikimedia Commons