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Bigger than a novel

Bigger than a novel

David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black won the International Booker Prize last week because of its literary qualities. However, the book is already being picked up as something that goes beyond the boundaries of the written word. Diop and his work have been co-opted into wider discussions about French colonialism and how the modern-day country should view its past. For example, according to the New York Times, Diop is a writer whose work is “helping France face its history with Africa”. While another media outlet quoted a Harvard post-doc saying the book was important because it “exposes a specifically French history that is connected to France's colonial endeavours. And even though the novel focuses on France, it connects to other histories as it indirectly points to the fact that other European colonial powers also resorted to using colonial troops during wars and erased their role in subsequent commemorations.” What is surprising is not that the novel should be cited but just how soon after Diop’s slim novel was given the IBP imprimatur it was deployed as a heavy hitter in these huge cultural exchanges.

Diop’s book was first published in France in 2018 under the title Frere d'ame, which translates as “soul brother” (describing the bond of the two Senegalese friends who go to France to fight in the trenches of the First World War). But it is also a pun, sounding like “Frères d’armes” (brothers in arms). The adroitness of this double meaning stumped Anna Moschovakis, the novel’s translator: she acknowledged the “beautiful pun” but went for At Night All Blood is Black because the double nature of Frere d'ame “would be impossible to actually translate”. Words can be sometimes be too fiendish for even the most brilliant of wordsmiths.

Diop and Moschovakis took part in a podcast interview after their win and during it Diop explained that the violence in the book was neither gratuitous nor simply descriptive but a way for him, as a writer, to express the emotions he felt after reading first-hand accounts of what went on in the trenches. This came as news to Moschovakis but allowed her to account for the pull the book exerted on her at first reading. Her father had been in Greece during the Second World War and had suffered under the Nazi invasion. Like Diop’s great grandfather – the inspiration for the novel – he has never spoken much about what went on. Moschovakis suddenly understood how the images and stories in the book have helped her relate to her own family’s wartime experiences too.

Diop also revealed his seven-year-old son’s reaction on being told that his father had just won a major literary prize. “Oh Dad,” said the lad, “so you’re going to be famous. . . like coronavirus.” The dumbfounded Diop could only agree, with the caveat: “but I hope I’m not going to be poisoning readers across the world.”

Tsitsi Dangarembga, the Zimbabwean novelist shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year for This Mournable Body, has just won the PEN Pinter Prize. The award, given in the Nobel-winning playwright’s name by the writers’ organisation that champions freedom of expression, is for an author who casts an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world, and shows a “fierce intellectual determination. . . to define the real truth of our lives and our societies”. Dangarembga has exhibited these qualities in spades. Such is her determination to tell the truth about the situation in Zimbabwe that in July 2020, just days after being nominated on the Booker Prize longlist, she was arrested by the authorities for taking part in anti-corruption protests and accused of inciting insurrection. The ordeal, however, has done nothing to stop her speaking out about injustice. This is Dangarembga’s second PEN award in a matter of months. Earlier this year she picked up the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression for writers who have been persecuted for their work and continue working regardless. These accolades must come as a welcome confirmation that she has not been forgotten: nearly a year on, the legal proceedings against her show no sign of movement, let alone a resolution.