“Reading these letters, remembers Diop, with the didactic gentleness of a university professor, when we speak via Zoom, I was really extremely moved. Maybe the violence in Soul brother I owe the violence of the testimonies contained in these letters.
However, all of the letters in the collection were from white French soldiers. Diop knew about 200,000 “Senegalese tirailleurs– literally, “Senegalese tirailleurs”, although in fact recruited from all the French colonies in West Africa – who fought for France during the First World War. He remembers his school years in Senegal that the last survivors had to subsist on pensions of € 5 per month.
Had the fusiliers, many of whom wrote excellent French, left letters of war? “There are,” says Diop, “but they are impersonal, administrative, and there was censorship. Eager for a West African personal testimony from the trenches, he decided to write a fictional one. Now that has plunged him, somewhat reluctantly, into the international debate over silenced black voices and reckoning with colonialism.
Diop is both a French writer and an African writer. Born to a Senegalese father and a white French mother in 1966, he grew up between Paris and Dakar and became a literary researcher at the University of Pau in southwestern France, specializing in European representations of the Africa and Africans in the Age of Enlightenment. His first novel little noticed 1889, the Universal Attraction, published in 2012 and not yet translated into English, tells the story of a Senegalese delegation that goes to France for the Universal Exhibition of 1889 in Paris but finds itself stranded in a circus where Africans are presented as monsters with Europeans.
The author’s fascination with World War I also came from his French side: his mother’s grandfather had fought in the trenches, but was never able to talk about it afterwards.
At night all the blood is black tells the story of a Senegalese tirailleur, Alfa Ndiaye. After seeing his “more than brother” die horribly from his native village, Alfa turns into the “African savage” that his French comrades expect from him. He ritually disembowels the German soldiers in one-on-one encounters, then brings their amputated hands back to the French trenches. Its commander complains that his methods are “a little too savage”, and do not correspond to the “civilized war” of mechanical massacre. In the second half of the story, we learn about Alfa’s African origins.
The story is told by Alfa in classic French – with the quirk that the character himself does not speak French, but the West African language Wolof, spoken mainly in Senegal, Gambia and Mauretania. Diop says: “I gave the French a different rhythm, to suggest that behind this French there is Wolof. I reproduce his rhythm by repeating certain sentences. Alfa continues to use the phrases “the truth of God” and “I know, I understand”.
Diop’s translator into English, American poet Anna Moschovakis, saw her work as “the translation of a translation (my translation of the author’s translation of the character’s thoughts)”. Diop only read fragments of the English text, but he listened to the audio book in English, read by Dion Graham. “I understood that Anna Moschovakis was doing a superb translation when I heard the rhythm of the text, which coincides perfectly with the rhythm in French,” he says. (They both shared the International Booker Prize and the £ 50,000 prize equally.) He hopes that someone will now translate his novel into Wolof.
The award comes at a time when Euro-African encounters are making headlines. After the global Black Lives Matter protests of last year and the overthrow of the statues of the slavers, Emmanuel Macron has just admitted the role of France in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, while Germany has admitted its genocide of the Namibians from 1904 to 1908.
The world, it seems, is catching up with the themes that Diop had been studying quietly for 15 years. “Through my academic work, I’ve been asking myself these questions for a long time,” he says. “It’s an old current of historians and sociologists who work on forgotten voices or muffled voices, because history is obviously written by the victors.
He adds: “If the book enters the political debate, I don’t mind. But I don’t want to say anything more than what I’ve written. I am a man of writing. Readers have to do whatever they want with the book. I don’t feel the need to add a verbal layer to it.
Diop’s novel was particularly well received in West Africa. “For Senegalese readers, there is the pleasure of rediscovering a familiar cultural horizon in a novel,” he says. “Our common cultural references allow them to use other keys to understand the state of mind of the main character.
Then there is the “historical view” of things. “Senegalese readers were pleased to see the memory of the tirailleurs restored. These people gave their blood for the homeland, for France. And there was a period of resentment because the promises made to them were not kept ”.
But Diop was struck more by the similarity than the differences in responses from readers around the world. He has found that despite Alfa’s monstrous acts, most readers feel compassion for him. He thinks it’s because the character is more than just a representative victim of colonial brutality and war.
“When the historians I have read speak of Senegalese skirmishers, they see them together. It is the job of a historian: to create groups, and to say: ” here, as many skirmishers came from this place, which means that in this region France had more weight and more efficient recruiting commissioners. Historians see large groups, ”says Diop. “What interests me – and this is what literature allows – is to apprehend the characters in their singularity. And it is this singularity that makes their humanity. Alfa has a unique interiority and is not just an indistinct member of a large group. This is prejudice: it erases distinctions.
Diop’s next novel, The Gate of the No Return Journey, released in French in August, is about 18th-century French botanist Michel Adanson, who traveled to Senegal. This is another version of Alfa’s journey, and that of the author.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist
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