Alfa Ndiaye is a Senegalese man who, never before having left his village, finds himself fighting as a so-called 'Chocolat' soldier with the French army during World War I. When his friend Mademba Diop, in the same regiment, is seriously injured in battle, Diop begs Alfa to kill him and spare him the pain of a long and agonizing death in No Man’s Land.
From the very first pages, there is something beguiling about At Night All Blood Is Black, a slim, delicate novel by the Senegalese-French writer David Diop ... This transgression against the dead — or the delusion of such — fills the story with a mythic affliction that recalls the old sailor’s in Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The narrative voice brims with innuendoes and habitual repetitions like 'I know, I understand' and 'God’s truth,' which imbue the character with an edgy eccentricity ... But this book is about more than a lone man’s spiritual burden. Diop realizes the full nature of war — that theater of macabre and violent drama — on the page. He takes his character into the depths of hell and lets him thrive there ... As violent and disturbing as these encounters are, they are rendered with such artistic grace that one derives a strange pleasure in reading about even the bloodiest of nights. The novel, though originally written in French, is grounded in the worldview of Senegal’s Wolof people, and the specificity and uniqueness of that culture’s language comes through even in Anna Moschovakis’s translation ... By the time we reach its shocking yet ultimately transcendent ending, the story has turned into something mystical, esoteric; it takes a cyclic shape ... More than a century after World War I, a great new African writer is asking these questions in a spare yet extraordinary novel about this bloody stain on human history.
... astonishingly good ... Alfa understands that his revenge is growing ghoulish; he understands that France as a colonial force is exploiting his bravery and his grief; he understands, even, that he is in part responsible for Mademba's suffering, which is perhaps the novel's most harrowing thread. But Alfa's understanding cannot free him. He is, in effect, doomed by his own comprehension. Diop's prose, which is at once swift and dense, captures that effect well. He and his translator, Anna Moschovakis, wall the reader into Alfa's mind and his story, refusing even the smallest glimmer of light.
Alfa’s rhythmic, repetitive oaths and laments; his pleas for understanding and forgiveness; his description of the trench as 'open like the sex of an enormous woman, a woman the size of the earth,' out of which men leap screaming to kill: all give the narrative both a suffocating intimacy and a sense of a nightmare too vast to escape ... While the physical setting is circumscribed—trenches bracketing no man’s land, with flashbacks to a village life that seems infinitely far away and long ago—the moral scope is immense ... I want to say it’s our human duty to read this book, which students across France chose to win a scholastic version of the Prix Goncourt. Listen to this voice that takes us into the madness of massive violence—with the warning that its vision of human duty offers no closure and much soul-searching.