The First World War continues to attract historical novelists, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find new stories to tell about its horrors. Yet David Diop has created a work that, although less than 150 pages in length, is powerfully original...
Unflinching in its exploration of the madness war can induce, Diop’s novella is a remarkable piece of writing.
Alfa’s account of his upbringing in Senegal, brief and powerful as anything else in the novel, makes clear that he was a much- loved child in an ordered society bound by ties of honour and respect. It is this war of the European powers that twists him into a monster. ‘Only obeying orders’ always sounds like a cop-out, but the punishment meted out to those who defy the captain is as brutal as any of Alfa’s crimes.
With elegant brevity, Diop presents a world with no firm dividing line between courage and madness, murder and warfare; the most dedicated killers are awarded the Croix de Guerre. Alfa’s final transformation, as he attempts to atone for his guilt over the death of his friend, is unexpected, poetic — and chilling.