A Waking Dream or Nightmare | Daily News

A Waking Dream or Nightmare

“The book is frightening – reading it, you feel you are being hypnotised,” says Hughes-Hallett, Chair of judges, at the Booker International Prize 2021. “Your emotions are all jangled up, your mind is being opened to new thoughts. It is an extraordinary piece of narrative, very powerful, very compelling. The protagonist is accused of sorcery and all of us, we judges, did feel this book had somehow put a spell on us. It is that hypnotically compelling.”

Explaining further in an interview with the BBC, Hughes-Hallett added, David Diop’s “At Night All Blood Is Black” is “a story about war, but also about love, the comradeship of those young men who fight together and the extraordinarily intense relationships that are formed by people who are risking death alongside each other. It is also a story about language – the protagonist does not speak much French, so it is a story written in French, which we read in English, about a man thinking in Wolof. Diop has done something very clever in creating a kind of incantatory language that somehow conveys that sense of what it is like to think outside your own language, as it were.”

Thus, David Diop created history by becoming the first French novelist to win the International Booker Prize for translated fiction for his novel, At Night All Blood Is Black. This also happens to be his first novel translated into English. Diop, the author of two novels, and his translator Anna Moschovakis, split the £50,000 annual prize, which goes to the best author and translator of a work translated into English.

At Night All Blood Is Black follows the story of a Senegalese soldier fighting for France in the first world war. The topic in itself is rather disheartening when one realizes more than a century after the First World War, literature produced in the West continues to give prominence to themes based on their wars and how their colonialism affected others. Proving my point, Hughes-Hallett said that many of the books submitted this year, including Diop’s, examined colonialism or migration, “which is of course the sequel to colonialism. That story about people moving around the world, maybe being welcomed by their new host countries or maybe being kept out, is one that a lot of the authors wanted to address.”

Though one might feel it is high time the West moved away from stories based on the two world wars, facts gleaned from an article in the Guardian reveals, approximately 135,000 Senegalese tirailleurs fought in Europe, with 30,000 killed. Diop was inspired to write the book by his Senegalese great-grandfather’s silence about his time in the war. “He never said anything to his wife, or to my mother, about his experience. That is why I was always very interested in all the tales and accounts which gave one access to a form of intimacy with that particular war,” Diop said in an interview with the BBC.

Born in Paris in 1966, to a French mother and Senegalese father, Diop spent his childhood in Senegal before returning to study in France, becoming a professor of 18th-century literature at the University of Pau. Since it was published in 2018, At Night All Blood Is Black has been a bestseller in France where it was shortlisted for 10 literary prizes and won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Its translations have also won Italy’s Premio Strega Europeo and the Netherlands’ Europese Literatuurprijs.

Caroline D. Laurent of the Harvard University summarizing the plot says, Diop’s novel centers around Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese tirailleur (infantryman) and the main narrator of the novel (he uses the first-person pronoun ‘I’ in most of the text). He fought on France’s side – and on French soil – during World War I.

The novel starts with the narration of a traumatic event that the African soldier has witnessed: the long and painful death of his best friend, Mademba Diop. The traumatic event directs Alfa’s vengeance, which could also be perceived as self-punishment. He kills German soldiers in a similar way, reproducing and repeating the traumatic scene. He then cuts one of their hands off and keeps it with him.

This results in Alfa being sent to a psychiatric hospital where doctors attempt to cure him. It deals with the concepts of war neurosis and shell shock that appeared then (what we now refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder).

The form of the novel associates elements of an inner monologue as well as a testimony. This allows the reader to see, through the perspective of a colonial subject, the horrors of war. In this sense, Diop writes a nuanced text: he describes the violence perpetrated and experienced by all sides. Alfa Ndiaye becomes a symbol of the ambivalence of war and its destructive power.

In spite of the violence or perhaps because of it, At Night All Blood Is Black was picked as the winner of the International Booker from 125 submitted books. Diop made the six-book shortlist last month alongside books including Benjamín Labatut’s When We Ceased to Understand the World, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, and Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale.

Hughes-Hallett said Diop won by “majority decision” among the judges, who also included Guardian journalist and author Aida Edemariam, novelist Neel Mukherjee, historian Olivette Otele, and poet and translator George Szirtes. “I do not want to go further than that, as all six shortlisted authors were fantastic and I think it would be very invidious to go any further than to say that Diop’s book and Moschovakis’ translation were seen by a majority of us as the outstanding book.”

Diop and Moschovakis were announced as the winners in a virtual celebration live streamed from Coventry Cathedral on Wednesday night. Previous winners include South Korea’s Han Kang and Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, with winning authors enjoying an astronomical increase in sales after the prize.

“I am at once flattered and I sort of feel as though I am living in a dream — a waking dream,” said Diop. Translator Anna Moschovakis quoted writer and translator John Keane to affirm the principle of cultural diversity that is central to the International Booker. “What does it mean to be together without being the same, to fully accept the idea of difference,” she said.

Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black was described by the British poet George Szirtes, the 2015 International Booker winner and current International Booker judge, as “savage, wonderful, perceptive, unforgettable. Meanwhile, talking to the New York Times Diop said, “This powerful meditation on the French colonial experience was an attempt to use literature to “mov[e] people before they turn to rational explanations of history.” Adding a comment of their own the New York Times revealed,”More than a century after World War One, a great new African writer is asking these questions in a spare yet extraordinary novel about this bloody stain on human history,”

The Star Tribune summed up the book by saying “Though short, it is an impressive, propulsive read, one that searingly evokes the terrors of trench warfare, the relentless loss of life, and the irreparable damage inflicted on the human soul.”

Hughes-Hallett too, acknowledging the violence in the book said that she hoped the violence would not put off prospective readers. “You can read the last act of King Lear when the bodies are piling up on stage and still be responding not just to the horror but the great beauty of the language,” she said.

“This book does what the best poetry does, entering the reader’s consciousness at a level that bypasses rationality and transcends the subject matter. So yes indeed, you are reading about horrible mutilations and a soldier going mad … but all the same, the whole tragedy relies on this dichotomy, of the awfulness of what you are being told and the beauty of how it is being expressed. So there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from this novel.” Though tastes may differ, I would rather not immerse myself in such a blood-bath just for the beauty of the language that cloaks horrible mutilations, especially when it refers to an event that took place long before any of us were born.

It also remains to be said, that when the Booker announced, “All the judges read all the 123 books written in dozens of languages entered for this year’s prize before a shortlist of six was announced in April,” they do not mention whether they read the original text of the translated books too. If they do not know what the original author wrote, can their decision, based solely on the translated text which might be totally different from what the original author said, and which might be ‘domesticated’ to borrow Lawrence Venuti’s term to match the views of English readers be crowned as the best translation, 2021? Over to you, Hughes-Hallett.

[email protected]