International Booker 2021: David Diop and Anna Moschovakis win for first World War novel

A Senegalese soldier loses his mind in the brilliant, brutal At Night All Blood Is Black

Senegalese soldiers in the French army during the first World War. Photograph: Getty Images

Senegalese soldiers in the French army during the first World War. Photograph: Getty Images

 

David Diop and his translator Anna Moschovakis have won this year’s International Booker Prize for At Night All Blood Is Black, a novel inspired by the French author’s Senegalese great-grandfather’s silence about his experiences in the first World War.

The elevation of this latest addition to the canon of great writing about war was announced this evening, appropriately enough, in Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt after its destruction in the second World War.

David Diop:
David Diop
Translator Anna Moschovakis
Translator Anna Moschovakis

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, chair of the judges, said: “This story of warfare and love and madness has a terrifying power. The protagonist is accused of sorcery, and there is something uncanny about the way the narrative works on the reader. We judges agreed that its incantatory prose and dark, brilliant vision had jangled our emotions and blown our minds. That it had cast a spell on us.”

At Night All Blood Is Black, a visceral exploration of emotional agony on the front line, published by Pushkin Press, captures the tragedy of a young man’s mind hurtling towards madness. It tells the little-heard story of the Senegalese who fought for France during the first World War.

Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop are brothers in arms, whose minds have been colonised, fighting far from home for a country whose language they do not even speak and which calls them Chocolats. When Mademba is mortally wounded, Alfa throws himself into combat with a savagery that his Western comrades in arms first celebrate and exploit but later fear. This exploration of toxic masculininty is heightened by the use of some disturbing sexual imagery. A lfa likens a trench to “the slightly parted lips of an immense woman’s sex. A woman, open, offering herself to war, to the bombshells, and to us, the soldiers.”

Reviewing the shortlist for The Irish Times, Michael Cronin, director of the Trinity Centre for Cultural and Literary Translation, wrote of his favourite title: “Alfa Ndiaye is aware of the cynicism of his French superiors using racial stereotypes to send flattered colonials to their deaths: ‘The captain’s France needs for us to play the savage when it suits them. They need for us to be savage because the enemy is afraid of our machetes.’”

Translation loss is a theme in the novel, but Gaby Wood, the prize’s literary director, insists that won it no extra points. Although written in French, the novel’s narrator Alfa speaks only Wolof and has to have his orders translated for him, noting that the interpreter’s translation is always suspiciously shorter than the original French.

“To translate is never simple. To translate is to betray the borders, it’s to cheat, it’s to trade one sentence for another. To translate is one of the only human enterprises in which you are required to lie about details to convey the truth at large.” The same might be said for all fiction.

As with Hiberno English, the prose’s rhythm is influenced by the original cadences of Wolof and captures also the hallucinatory effect of mental disintegration.

The French edition of the novel, Frère d’âme, received the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in 2018. It also won Italy’s Strega European Prize and the 2020 Los Angeles Times Fiction Book Prize.

Born in 1966 in Paris, Diop is the first French author to win the International Booker Prize. Raised in Senegal, he is now a professor of 18th-century literature at the University of Pau. Moschovakis’s works include the James Laughlin Award-winning poetry collection You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake and a novel, Eleanor: or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love. Her translations from French include Annie Ernaux’s The Possession, and Bresson on Bresson. They each receive £25,000.

At Night All Blood Is Black was chosen by Hughes-Hallett, a cultural historian and novelist; writer Aida Edemariam; Man Booker shortlisted novelist Neel Mukherjee; professor of the history of slavery, Olivette Otele; and poet George Szirtes.

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