At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (2021 International Booker Prize longlist)

“Up to the third hand, I was a war hero, beginning with the fourth I became a dangerous madman, a blood-thirsty savage. God’s truth, that’s how things go, that’s how the world is: each thing is double.”

How ironic that Captain Armand doesn’t want Alfa Ndiaye to cut off the enemy’s hands anymore. “Your way of waging war is a little too savage. I never ordered you to cut off enemy hands! It isn’t regulation…You will content yourself with killing them, not mutilating them. The civilities of war forbid it.”

“Civilities of war.” As if there is such a thing. It was the guilt Alfa felt over the death of his more-than-brother, Mademba Diop, that caused him to bring back the hands of the blue-eyed enemies. Hands that were still attached to their rifles.

At first he was treated with respect, but after the fourth hand he was seen as a “demm,” a devourer of the souls. But, I think it is his own soul which is being devoured. He cannot forgive himself for the way that his friend died. He cannot forgive himself for not taking Mademba’s life when Mademba begged him.

“Ah, Mademba! How I regretted not killing you on the morning of the battle, while you were still asking me nicely, as a friend, with a smile in your voice! To have slit your throat in that moment would have been the last good bit of fun I could have given you in your life, a way to stay friends for eternity. But instead of coming through for you, I let you die condemning me, bawling, drooling, screaming, shitting yourself like a feral child. In the name of who knows what human laws, I abandoned you to your miserable lot. Maybe to save my own soul, maybe to remain the person those who raised me hoped for me to be, before God and before man.”

It is when he tells his story, of his mother going off in search of her father and her brothers, so that Mademba’s family takes him in as one of their own, that we see his tender spirit. I did not expect to be so moved by his story, unable to stop reading until I had finished the novel. Some say it is a story of Black and White, of war, and of a madman who commits unspeakable violence. I say it is the story of a heart which is broken, unable to forgive itself or heal from the losses of those held dear.

“But the truly brave like Mademba are the ones who aren’t afraid of punches even though they’re weak. God’s truth, now I can admit it to myself, Mademba was braver than me. But I know, I have understood too late that I should have said this to him before he died.

At Night All Blood Is Black