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At Night All Blood Is Black, by Paris-born David Diop, beats out the competition to secure the prestigious prize

On Wednesday, David Diop became the first French author to win the International Booker Prize. Awarded for a book translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland, Diop’s novel At Night All Blood Is Black was also selected as winner of the 2018 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in France, winner of this year’s Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction as well as the Swiss Prix Ahmadou Korouma.

Author David Diop pictured in 2018. Photo: librairie mollat

Announced during a virtual ceremony from Coventry Cathedral, Diop splits the £50,000 prize with translator Anna Moschovakis, whose book of poetry You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake won the James Laughling Award in 2011. Diop says he was inspired to write the book by his Senegalese great-grandfather, who was one of approximately 135,000 Senegalese tirailleurs (translated variously as “skirmishers”, “rifleman” or “sharpshooter”) who fought in Europe during the first world war.

The book follows Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop, who leave their small Senegalese village to join the French army’s fight against Germany in World War 1. When Mademba is gruesomely wounded by a German soldier and dies a slow death in no man’s land, Alfa’s inability to put his friend out of his suffering drives him mad with guilt, turning him into a demon feared even by his comrades.    

Speaking to the BBC, Diop said of his great-grandfather: “He never said anything to his wife, or to my mother, about his experience. That is why I was always very interested by all the tales and accounts which gave one access to a form of intimacy with that particular war.”

Chair of the International Booker judges Lucy Hughes-Hallett called the novel “frightening”, comparing the experience of reading it to being hypnotized.

“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.”

At Night All Blood Is Black is published by Pushkin Press.