Quite a few book on the Great War I have read. This war lasted from 1914-1918. The British called it the Great War because so many nations and colonies and people from all walks of life and from all kinds of backgrounds participated in it. The War became synonymous with trenches. Especially those at the battle fields near the Belgian town of Ypers and those in France. It was not just a war between Western forces, for many soldiers from the colonies of those days participated. The French Army recruited soldiers from their French colonies. The British from their colonies. Young men from Senegal were recruited to travel to Europe and to defend France from the invading forces of Germany.
In this novel by the French/Senegalese writer David Diop we are plunged in the muddy trenches of the Great War. Diop does not give an indication of the location, be it in Belgium or be it in France. What is clear though that the fighting armies are close to one another, hidden by mud and darkness and futility and a sense of survival. The story is told by the young soldier Alfa Ndiaye. He is in the trenches with his friend, his soul brother, Mademba Diop. He takes care of Madembe who has been fatally wounded and who begs Alfa to finish his life, so he will not suffer till the end. When I read it, it was haunting. What will happen? What will Alfa do to the friend who is closer than a brother. The story continues on a very intense tone, showing the madness of the war. White and black soldiers fight together and when their commander Armand blows his whistle the soldiers leave their trenches and run towards the blue eyed enemies, in the left hand a gun and in the right hand a cutlass. Death and destruction is all around. When the opposing groups have withdrawn to their trenches to recuperate Alfa crawls through the in between mud, looking for survivors of the enemy.
Part of the story is set in the birthland of Alfa and Mademba and the lovely Fary Thiam. We witness the friendship between Alfa and Mademba and the final hours before they set of for white man’s country to fight that far away war. The book ends in a thought provoking way.
David Diop has given his readers a great gift. It is not just the story of two Senegalese young men in a western war. It is also the way he wrote, the diction, the repetition of phrases so as to his mark in your mind. Thank you, David Diop.
Éditions du Seuil 2018