CHARLIE CONNELLY on an award for translated fiction that is gradually growing in stature, and its very worthy winner
While most of the annual book award talk is naturally focused on the Booker Prize for Fiction there are other gongs whose gentler tones occasionally penetrate the literary din. The Women’s Prize for Fiction grows in stature every year, the Costa Book Awards make a bit of a racket when they’re announced and there’s an audible, if muted, clatter when the winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize, effectively the Booker prize for non-fiction, is announced.
One prize that I’ve always felt deserves to have more of a fuss made of it than has often been the case is the International Booker, awarded for a work of fiction translated from another language into English. Translated literature, especially contemporary literature, is gradually emerging into the spotlight after decades of being sidelined by snobbery. The International Booker, which goes from strength to strength, has played no small part in changing the prevailing perception that literature originally composed in another language is somehow inferior.
The 2021 International Prize was awarded last week at a ceremony in Coventry with a pretty decent fanfare for what has tended to be regarded as a sideshow to the massive big top of the main Booker event, whose longlist is announced next month. It’s more evidence of the growth in quality of and interest in translated fiction. I’ve written here before of how we’re enjoying a golden age of translation and we can find no finer confirmation than by looking at this year’s International Booker.
David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black, translated by Anna Moschovakis, is the sixth winner since the award adopted its current format. Established in 2005, the prize was originally presented every other year to a writer, recognising a body of work with global appeal rather than an individual book. Early winners included Alice Munro, Chinua Achebe and Philip Roth.
In 2016 following the demise of the Independent newspaper’s long-running Foreign Fiction Prize, the Booker International was relaunched to recognise a book translated into English, with a £50,000 prize divided equally between author and translator, not to mention the knock-on benefit of increased sales.
Of the six winners since the introduction of the new format three have come from Europe: Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk for Flights in 2018, translated by Jennifer Croft, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld from the Netherlands whose The Discomfort of Evening was translated by Michele Hutchison won last year, with Diop and Moschovakis picking up this year’s award. The other winners came from Oman, Israel and South Korea.
Every year the longlist seems to grow stronger, with a wide range of authors from a wide range of nations making the judges’ job more difficult than ever. For me the International Booker has become a far more interesting award than the flagship Booker Prize, its international diversity throwing up new authors for Anglophone readers, shining a light on voices and stories we might not otherwise find, as well as being the highest profile celebration of translators there has ever been.
I’ve written before about the unsung heroics of the literary translator, but the immense value of a reliable, sensitive and literary rendering of prose into another language cannot be underestimated and the 50-50 prize money split between the winning author and translator demonstrates how highly the organisation values these relationships. For too long the translator has been an afterthought, rarely mentioned in reviews, their name in small print on the title page, but the increase in recognition of one half of what is, after all, a collaboration has mirrored the growth of the International Booker.
The selection of At Night All Blood is Black as this year’s winner was yet more confirmation that the International Booker is really finding its feet, establishing itself as the benchmark for high quality translated literature. The 2021 longlist was the strongest yet. In previous years titles like The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated by Elizabeth Heighway, and Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated by David Doherty, would have been among the favourites to win the prize. This year they couldn’t make it out of the longlist.
Four of the six shortlisted books coming from Europe this year is confirmation of just how much outstanding fiction from our continent is becoming available to English language readers. It’s testament to imprints like Pushkin Press, who had two books on the shortlist including the winner, Fitzcarraldo Editions, MacLehose Press and Peirene Press, who all featured in the longlist and are among the publishers with enough courage and belief in their authors to take on the extra work and risk that producing a translation entails.
At Night All Blood is Black was described by the chair of the judges Lucy Hughes-Hallett in her winner’s citation as “an extraordinary novel”. In Diop’s hands, she said, “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”.
Set during the First World War, the book follows the descent into appalling brutality of Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese infantryman fighting for the French. He’d joined up in his home village alongside his friend Mademba Diop and the two men had enlisted together, travelled together and then lined up alongside each other in the trenches together. Their plan was to get through the conflict and settle in France, making new lives that promised more for their ambitions than rural west Africa could provide.
At the start of the book, however, we learn that Mademba has been mortally wounded during a raid on a German trench, dying an agonisingly slow death in a no-man’s land shell hole with Alfa alongside him. Despite Mademba begging Alfa to put him out of his misery he can’t do it. Instead he stays with him holding his hand, refusing all gasped, desperate pleas from his old friend to please slit his throat and end the agony until finally Mademba dies.
Immediately afterwards Alfa feels crashing waves of guilt. He blames himself for not acting upon his friend’s request and he blames himself for the teasing he believes prompted Mademba to lead the charge out of the trench in order to prove his courage.
This emotional turmoil turns Alfa into a brutal killer, a psychopath who stands out even among the madness of the trenches. During raids he starts disregarding the retreat signal, laying low in the mud and gore in front of the German trenches as his comrades returned to theirs, biding his time, picking off a soldier, hauling him out of the trench, disembowelling him and then, as the eyes of the shocked combatant plead noiselessly for a quick death with Alfa’s hand clamped over his mouth, eventually slitting their throat.
Alfa wasn’t finished there, either. He would cut off the right hand of his victim and return with it as a trophy, collecting several, until the hero’s welcome he receives at first becomes more subdued until the penny drops that his own comrades are terrified of what he has become. To his white counterparts he’s a dangerous lunatic, to his fellow West Africans a “dëmm, a devourer of souls”.
It unsettles his commanding officer too. While “the captain’s France needs our savagery”, it’s only required between the blows of his whistle to launch and recall assaults on enemy trenches. “On the battlefield,” says Alfa, “they wanted only fleeting madness”.
It takes skill and delicacy to make a character like this even remotely sympathetic but it’s testament to both Diop and Moschovakis that we find ourselves looking into Alfa beyond the slaughter. He takes us back to his childhood and youth, where we learn of the latent family trauma that arguably fuels his brutal forays into enemy trenches, of his friendship with Mademba and of the girl he left behind, building the novel to its surprising, effective and affecting climax.
As a black soldier in a European war Alfa is skilfully portrayed by Diop with layers of outsider-ness. Despite their bravery and heroism the tirailleurs, West African troops fighting for the French, were still saddled with pejorative stereotypes by their own side. It took until the centenary of the Armistice in 2018 for them to be honoured in an official commemoration.
The book was inspired by Diop’s own French great-grandfather. The author was born in Paris in 1966 to a French mother and Senegalese father, the family moving to Dakar when Diop was five years old. There he learned that his great-grandfather had fought in the First World War but never spoke of what he’d seen and done.
Diop returned to France to study at the Sorbonne – he’s now a professor of 18th century French literature at the University of Pau – and began to research the Senegalese solders’ experiences. While there were official records of regiments and soldiers, the voices of the men themselves were entirely absent. All those stories, all those friendships, all that hardship and trauma, all destined to remain untold by voices silenced forever.
All of which helps reflect the wider implications of and potential for the role of the International Booker. Stories from previously overlooked marginal voices, communities and regions all over the world have an increasingly significant platform in a brighter spotlight than ever before. Hughes-Hallett noted at the ceremony in Coventry how many of the books submitted to the competition for consideration concerned colonialism and migration, “the sequel to colonialism”, as she put it.
“That story about people moving around the world, maybe being welcomed by their new host countries or maybe being kept out,” she said, “is one that a lot of the authors wanted to address.”
At Night All Blood is Black is a slim novel, a shade under 150 pages, but with Diop’s spare prose rendered beautifully in Moschovakis’s absorbing translation, it covers a range of themes and issues without the slightest hint of hectoring. Language is important here, too. Alfa and his Senegalese colleagues don’t speak French, they speak Wolof, and Diop’s adoption of the rhythms and patterns of the language were widely praised in the original French edition. This added an extra challenge to Moschovakis’s task but the Greek-American poet has risen to it admirably, adopting and adapting phrases and patterns to which the reader tunes their ear, aware this is a particular kind of voice.
A bestseller in France, At Night All Blood is Black was shortlisted for 10 literary prizes when it was published in 2018 and won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Its Italian and Dutch translations have won prizes in their adoptive countries and its testament to author, translator and the International Booker itself that Pushkin Press’s English edition has been recognised as the outstanding piece of work that it is.
It was a tough field this year for any book to stand out. And with translated fiction growing in stature and quality with each passing year, that field is only going to get tougher.
At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis, is published by Pushkin Press, price £8.99
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