By Anshif Ali
Literature always attempts to address the pressing issues concerning humanity. It gives voice to the voiceless and amplifies that of the silenced. Homer’s Odysseus, an intimidating shipwrecked-sailor who is lost in a strange island, represents the modern refugees and their suffering. Cervantes’s Don Quixote is a madman in the eyes of those who he encounters and his excessive infatuation towards chivalric romances is what drags him to insanity. Literature incorporates these differences and prepares the reader to be inclusive of the other. Its wide spectrum is capable of capturing the nuances of everyday life and traversing the untrodden pages of the past, thus narrating the often untold realities of the socially and politically marginalized.
Literature as an art has never failed to be a form of activism. Skilled writers weave them both together without either delimiting the aesthetic value of the work or appropriating the content. For a long time, the experiences of the people of colonial Africa were underrepresented in the mainstream literature except for the stereotypical or propagandist narrations by even acclaimed writers such as Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling. In response to Conrad’s controversial Heart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe depicted Africa through the perspectives of natives in Things Fall Apart and it became a huge success in terms of proposing a critique to the western colonial attitude.
One of the best counter-narratives produced in recent times to wash away the ill effects of such misleading works and to present an original account of the events is the International Booker Prize winner David Diop’s enthralling novel At Night All Blood Is Black (2020). The book undermines the stereotypes of African savagery and exposes the barbarity of European colonial officers in particular and of war in general. It explores the severity of First World War trauma through the mental transformations undergone by the protagonist-cum-narrator, Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese who fights for France against Germany. Diop does this exquisitely by desisting from the heroization of the soldier figure and from romanticizing his struggles. He narrates the brutality on the battlefield with all its ferocity, thus underscoring the murderous end results of war. He goes beyond the descriptions of the vicious physical consequences of the war by delving deeper into the psychological challenges like the moral dilemma Alfa has to grapple with and the survival guilt that haunts him. He acutely sketches Alfa’s descent into insanity. Moreover, his novel is a strenuous effort to fill the gap in the accepted history of WWI and commemorate the forgotten contributions of the Senegalese Tirailleurs.
David Diop read letters from the Poilus (the French infantry of World War I) which inspired him to write the novel. “These were extremely poignant letters,” he says in an interview, “written by young people who spent quite an amount of time on what I call “the earth to no one” – the no man’s land.” They were wounded and carried back to the back lines where they had only the time to write a letter to their family saying they are safe and there is nothing to worry. What deepens the melancholy is that when their letters were received, they had already departed. These letters were collected by a historian named Jean-Pierre Guéno in his work “Paroles de poilus: Lettres et carnets du front (1914-1918).” They unveiled the intimacy of young soldiers with the war which prompted Diop to search for such personal letters written by infantrymen from colonized African countries. Much to his disappointment, he hardly found any of them as these tirailleurs were largely illiterate and associated with an oral culture. This made him want to write a fictional letter revealing the intimate relationship of a Senegalese rifleman with the war. To create the effects of a moving letter, but at the same time to make the narration unique and exquisite, he chose an unfiltered transcription of the flow of consciousness and thoughts, censoring it from nothing, but evoking this intimacy that he invented and also found in the letters of the soldiers.
The indispensable contributions of soldiers from the colonies are often overlooked even in the acknowledgement of the nation. The participation of the colonial troops in the war was hardly recognized in the original agenda for the First World War centenary in France. This was a result of the rampant racism institutionalized in France, which identifies the national identity as essentially white. Diop questions ‘the colour of war memory’, and topples its legitimacy by contributing significantly to the efforts of filling in the lacuna in the national history and reclaiming a lost past through fiction.
Tracing the roots of a forgotten history, and spotlighting the unsung lives of millions and the struggles they had to undergo in battlefront, At Night All Blood is Black explores the possibilities of a fictional work in presenting a model of activism. In a world of increasing unrest and chaos rooted chiefly in political motives, this book is a call for peace and order which valorously avers the message that the world is not designed to be a ‘No-Man’s Land’, where ruthlessness is the only norm.
Anshif Ali is a content creator at Katib Media Collective (katib.in). He is interested in contemporary and post-colonial fiction about migration, refugee crisis, colonialism and power in general. He writes articles in magazines and attends conferences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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