By Chet Yarbrough
At Night All Blood Is Black
By: David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis
Narrated by: Dion Graham
David Diop (Novelist, born in Paris to a French mother and Senegalese father, Graduate of the Sorbonne in Paris, winner of the International Booker Prize.)
“At Night All Blood Is Black” is a powerful anti-war story. Though it is about WWI, it is a reminder of the long- and short-term consequence of the horror of killing. In the beginning, the sonorous voice of the narrator, Dion Graham, seems wrong for the story. One may be tempted to put it aside. By the end of the story, a listener understands why Graham’s telling is perfect for the piece.
Though the setting of “At Night All Blood Is Black” is in Senegal, a former colony of France, it has universal application. In one sense it is a condemnation of colonization but in a more universal sense it is about war’s survivors. Its immediate relevance is in the Russia/Ukraine war and the atrocities revealed in the news.
Of course, western media shows the murder and mutilation of Ukrainians because Vladimir Putin is the unquestioned instigator of the war. However, one can be sure there are atrocities on both sides, as Americans know from the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Diop’s story is about one man’s role in the war. He is a Senegalese recruit that speaks no French. He enlists and is ordered by a French commander to kill Germans. This recruit develops a blood lust that revels in hand-to-hand combat. He loses his best friend early in his combat experience.
His childhood friend is eviscerated by a machete or a shot from a gun. He is alive but his guts are strewn on the ground. As he tries to return his guts to his abdomen, he begs the recruit to kill him because he knows he cannot survive. The recruit cannot do it. His friend finally dies, and the recruit blames himself for not having the courage to end his friend’s misery. This event triggers bloodlust in the recruit.
The recruit is already notorious for cutting off the hand of a German he has killed and bringing it back to the camp. After his friend’s death, he begins to collect more hands from Germans he kills. His commanding officer becomes aware of the recruit’s behavior. The men in the troop become fearful of the recruit. The recruit is ordered to leave the field of battle and to turn over the six hands of German soldiers that he has collected.
The recruit says he has lost the hands when in fact he has preserved them in a salt mixture and hidden them in his personal gear. The recruit reasons that the commander will court martial him if he finds the hands. That may or may not be true, but the preserved hands have some undisclosed psychological meaning to the recruit.
War’s emotional abuse.
The recruit is sent to a psychiatric hospital. He is treated for stress and his aberrant behavior by a French psychiatrist. The recruit cannot speak French, but the psychiatrist asks him to draw pictures for him to gain some insight to the recruit’s state of mind. The drawings seem to help the recruit recover. He secretly buries the six hands he has been carrying around with him. However, it is implied that the buried hand expedition is seen and noted by the psychiatrist. In the process of his hospitalization, a backstory is given of the recruit’s life before the war.
War changes people in different ways. Those in direct, particularly hand-to-hand combat, may never return to social normality. The recruit is characterized as a handsome, muscular young man who attracts beautiful women. One of the women is the daughter of his psychiatrist. The meaning of the story lies in the fate of the daughter.
The brutality of war never leaves its participants. It likely never leaves war’s survivors, but Diop’s story suggests participants in brutality carry an even bigger burden. One wonders what consequence there will be for soldiers and survivors of the Russia/Ukrainian war.