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What a year for the African novel: conclusion



Last week I began discussing this year’s winner of the highly prestigious International Booker prize, At Night All Blood is Black by the Senegalese novelist David Diop. Set during the First World War, the novel begins with its narrator, the young Alfa Ndiaye, recounting how his “more-than-brother”, Mademba Diop, has his belly blown open and how Alfa fails to put him out of his misery by slitting his throat. Through Alfa’s narration Diop depicts the colonial masters and the garbage they spew: “[The African troops] will all die without thinking because Captain Armand has said to them, ‘You, the Chocolats of black Africa, are naturally the bravest of the brave. France admires you and is grateful.’” (Grateful?? With another forty years of brutal colonial rule to follow?) Alfa is wise to the foul rhetoric of the Captain’s words and to the ideology that underlies this: “what I think is that people don’t want me to think. The unthinkable is what is hidden behind the Captain’s words. The Captain’s France wants us to play the savage when it suits them.” And so he does, after every attack bringing back an enemy rifle and the hand that held it. Alfa doesn’t tell his fellow soldiers how he does this, but he tells us, and it is utterly horrifying. And the account goes on and on, circling on itself with repetitions, like the cyclone from which Alfa’s madness will emerge. After the fourth trophy hand is brought in, his fellow soldiers begin to avoid him; he has become “untouchable.” But there remains the larger picture: as Alfa observes, you’d have to be mad to obey the orders your officers give you. It has to be said, one third of the way through this so-closely focussed novel, a book that turns and turns on a pin-head recognition, this reader began to wish for more of the larger perspective, to escape the confines of Alfa’s mind, and for some flashback material filling in Alfa’s past. There is some of this, for instance, an account of Alfa’s and his soul-mate’s on-going joking dispute about their families’ respective totems (a lion and a peacock). This is bright and fun, until we learn how it led to Mademba’s death. There are occasional movements sideways, for instance, Alfa’s take on faith: “I believe that God always lags behind us. It’s all he can do to assess the damage.” There is a small-scale mutiny and its terrible punishment by Captain Armand, who has swallowed hook, line and sinker the rhetoric of “glorious France” and the justification for war. But in his madness it’s as if Alfa’s past, his home, do not exist; for much of the novel there is only one flashback, to a night of love-making (Alfa’s first ever) just before he leaves for the war. Half-way through and there comes a dramatic shift, when the Captain sends the clearly deranged Alfa back from the front for a month to heal (“I sleep, I eat, beautiful young women dressed in white take care of me, and that’s it.”) For his Doctor / psychiatrist he makes drawings, of his mother’s head with its beautiful Fulani (nomad) hairstyle; this leads to an account of how his mother came to marry his father. This account is quite extended and takes us far away from the main narrative. Indeed, it reads almost like an independent work (like a story Diop may have written years before?), with its radical shift in subject-matter and in Alfa, the narrator’s language and tone. The last section begins “They ask me my name, but I’m waiting for them to reveal it to me. I swear to you that I no longer know who I am.” A fable follows, the story of the lion-sorceror, and then Alfa’s final loss of a sense of being in possession of a single self. This is by no means the first novel on the role of African troops in the two world wars. From Senegal, nearly forty years ago, there came Morts pour la France (Dead for France) by Doumbi-Fakoly, and much more recently from South Africa Fred Khumalo’s wonderful Dancing the Death Drill. And on the subject of the second world war there is Burma Boy (also known by its American title, The King’s Rifle) a novel on the Chindit campaign in the Burmese jungle by UK-based Nigerian author, Biyi Bandele. This, like Diop’s novel, is built around a friendship between two soul-mates, the young Ali Banana and his more-than-buddy Bloken. The Bandele is a superb novel and its ending is horrific and heart-wrenching, but it comes nowhere near the scorching power of the Diop. I’ll end this account with two more quotations from the Diop blurb: from the London Times, “it explodes with extraordinary force”, and from Ali Smith in the Guardian, “I don’t think I will ever forget it.” But there, I’ve said more than enough. I urge my readers to try to get hold of this extraordinary novel, one of the most ambitious and (emotionally and conceptually) challenging that Africa has produced. Chris Dunton

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