December 21, 2021 3:35:28 pm
In 2018, when French novelist David Diop published his novel Frère d’âme, the story of a Senegalese soldier fighting in the French army at World War I, it went on to win France’s highest literary award, Prix Goncourt des Lycéens that year. The unravelling of a mind fractured by grief and violence comes alive through the monologue of Alfa Ndiaye, the protagonist of Diop’s novel, who is deeply impacted by the loss of his dear friend Mademba Diop in an act of brutal savagery in the war. The novel was translated into English by Anna Moschovakis as At Night All Blood is Black (Pushkin Press, Rs 399) and went on to win the International Booker Prize 2021, making Diop the first French novelist and first writer of African heritage to win the Prize (alongside Moschovakis).
Born to a Senegalese father and a French mother, Diop, 55, a professor of 18th century literature at the University of Pau, France, grew up between the two countries. His mixed heritage fuelled his curiosity about the dual cultures he had inherited. In this exclusive interview, Diop speaks of what brought him to the novel, why he built in graphic descriptions of violence in it and how literature can be a tool to examine and humanise historical Othering. Edited excerpts:
World War I saw the participation of many men from erstwhile colonies in Asia and Africa, whose plight went undocumented from mainstream narratives. What brought you to this story in particular?
My father is Senegalese and my mother French. Nobody from my father’s side of the family fought in the French army. On my mother’s side, I have a great-grandfather who fought in the war of 14-18. He was gassed, with mustard gas, but never spoke about his experiences after he returned home. His silence always intrigued me, and I have, therefore, been interested in World War I for a long time. It was this interest which led me to discover the letters written by ‘poilus’ – soldiers from mainland France – which had been collected by a French historian. I then did some research to see whether any tirailleurs – African soldiers in the French army – had written letters recounting their experiences of the war. I didn’t find any. The only ones that exist are impersonal, administrative. That’s when the idea came to me to write At Night All Blood is Black. But rather than have my character write a letter, I wanted the readers to find themselves at the very centre of his being, with his most secret thoughts. That seemed to me the best technique to recreate the experience of a Senegalese tirailleur during the war.
What sort of research did you have to put into this novel?
I did my research in quite an unusual way for a university professor like me: I read very detailed history books on the role played by the Senegalese tirailleurs in the war, but without taking any notes, so that when I was writing my book I had to rely on my memory. That’s also why I don’t mention any specific battles or any precise dates. I wanted to describe a kind of ‘mother of all battles’ where the important thing would be the description of my character’s experiences in the war. While I was writing, I tried to maintain some distance from his suffering.
There’s a lot of violence in the novel. Was your intent to shock the reader into a recognition of the dehumanising effects of war?
World War I was a huge sacrifice, of the bodies of a great number of the world’s youth. For me, the violence was not an end in itself but a means to permit my readers to imagine the horror of combat. Wars seem to me like rituals of human sacrifice on a massive scale. The ritual elements, by which I mean the parades, the presentation of arms, the raising of the flags, the shouting of orders, all aim to make the soldiers forget that they are going to commit murders, or become victims of murder themselves.
There’s a constant reference to the savagery of the Senegalese/African soldiers in the novel. How do you react to this historical Othering, that continues to manifest itself in different ways even now?
Alfa’s savagery is a deliberate act: it’s first of all a desperate reaction to the death of his more-than-brother, but it’s also a reaction to the image that the French had of their colonial soldiers. Alfa plays the savage by choice: he even exceeds the expectations of his superiors who, in the end, are frightened to see reality correspond with the imagined barbarity associated with the tirailleurs. In this way, I was hoping to undermine both the French and German propaganda, which used the same stereotypes. More broadly, I think literature allows us to question the ideas we have of the Other. It brings nuance to our perception of difference. Paradoxically, through portraying a particular character, literature teaches us something about all humanity.
Were you surprised by the novel’s reception, both among readers and critics?
I was very surprised and moved by the reception to my novel from critics and readers all over the world. I think I owe it to the fact that At Night All Blood is Black, through its internal monologue, gives us access to some of what is universally human: love, friendship, hope, despair, suffering.
Tell us a bit about your childhood and youth in France and Senegal. How did your upbringing shape your vision as a novelist?
I was born in Paris and spent my childhood in Senegal. Spending my formative years between two countries, two cultures, two languages, undoubtedly nourished my imagination. I like to reconcile these two cultural backgrounds in my writing. As far as my personal experience goes, these two backgrounds are complementary and not contradictory. Even so, my fiction is a place where I explore moments of encounter between France and Senegal that are both painful and fertile.
As a novelist, what sort of stories interests you the most?
I love to be carried away by a strong plot and a poetic style.
What comes after this?
For the time being, I am devoting myself entirely to the promotion of my new novel, The Gate of No Return, which was published in France by Éditions du Seuil in August and which will also be published in English by Pushkin Press
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