June 2022 Harriett Book Club
At Night All Blood is Black by French writer David Diop (tr. Anna Moschovakis) is probably one of the shortest novels our book club has read so far, but man, it packs a punch!
Diop’s ability to portray a myriad of men’s emotions and the trauma that soldiers suffer in the context of WWI against the backdrop of Senegalese history and culture is evidence of why his writing won and deserves the 2021 International Booker Prize.
In only 145 pages, At Night All Blood is Black illustrates the protagonist Alfa Ndiaye’s descent into madness after his more-than-brother Mademba Diop died a long death in the trenches because Alfa refused to finish him off after he was mutilated by the enemy.
Guilt. Insurmountable guilt. How does a colonised man, a Senegalese man, or a man in general cope with guilt, pain, loss, and trauma?
A book club member pointed out the toxic masculinity that flows throughout the story, where Alfa, despite undergoing tremendous stress and heartache, succumbs to cultural pressures in the war context and perhaps in that era for men to resort to even more killing to assuage inner suffering.
Yet there are unspoken expectations on the limits to violence – other soldiers begin to fear Alfa after he returns from the trenches with the fourth pair of enemy hands. Where does savagery begin and end?
I personally find that the original French title of the book “Soul Brothers” would have been more apt as it accurately encapsulates the intimacy between and history of Alfa and Mademba. With the French title in mind, it’ll help the reader make better sense of the final chapter and the dissociative episodes that Alfa experiences throughout the story.
If I could ask the writer a question, I’ll probably ask him about the language of body parts in the book. Why are male body parts like the penis obscured with the term “inside-outside” and “middle of the body” while the female breasts are simply spelled out as breasts? Are male bodies treated with more dignity, and, if so, why?
One last point to note is that our book club member also pointed out that we might be able to understand At Night All Blood is Black a tad better if we knew more about Senegalese culture and terms like “demm” (soul eater) [p.s. there are some journal articles on “demm”], which could help us interpret Alfa’s dissociative episodes and the overall story differently.
Join us in July as we discuss Ukrainian writer Andrey Yuryevich Kurkov’s The Milkman in the Night (tr. Amanda Love Darragh).
Everyone is welcome to join our book club. We meet online every last weekend of the month. For more updates, follow us on Instagram and Facebook!