In the Iliad, the Greek hero Achilles finally goes mad with rage when his beloved companion Patroclus is killed on the battlefield of Troy. The epic poem begins, “Wrath – sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles”, and over twenty four books rarely wavers from this focus.
There is more than a little of Achilles’ wrath in Alfa Ndiaye, the narrator of this short and immaculate novel of two 20-year-old Senegalese men fighting on the Western Front in France. Alfa’s Patroclus, his “more-than-brother” (like the Iliad their relationship is difficult to pin down) is Mademba Diop, whose mother adopted Alfa when his own mother vanished. They have shared everything together, as Mademba explains:
We’re the same age, we were circumcised on the same day. You lived at my house, I watched you grow up and you watched me. Because of that, you can make fun of me, I can cry in front of you, I can ask you anything. We are more than brothers because we chose each other as brothers.
When Mademba is wounded in battle, “his guts in the air, his insides outside, like a sheep that has been ritually dismembered after the sacrifice,” he begs Alfa three times to slit his his throat, and is thrice denied. It takes a day for him to die, and Alfa comes to believe he has committed a terrible betrayal:
I was not humane … I let duty make my choice. I offered him only mistaken thoughts, thoughts commanded by duty, thoughts condoned by a respect for human law, and I was not human.
Alfa begins his account with the phrase “… I understand, I know”, which he repeats regularly throughout, as guiding a focus as Achilles’ wrath. Just what Alfa has come to understand and know emerges gradually. At its most fundamental, it is the epiphany that his mind is his own, even if his body is used to do the work of imperialism. Until this moment he has done and thought what he is told: by his military commanders, by his father and elders, and by the French colonial government.
For Alfa, his newly independent mind leads him first to take vengeance on the enemy, ambushing retreating soldiers after the daily ceasefire, disemboweling them, and taking a hand as a trophy. His fellow soldiers initially celebrate this savagery, but later they begin to fear it, begin wondering if Alfa is a dëmm, a devourer of souls. He is sent to the rear of the front where doctors “wash our minds clean of the filth of war”. Now he recounts growing up in a farming village in Senegal, his burgeoning friendship with Mademba, and how the two ended up fighting for the French against the Germans. Despite millions of Black soldiers fighting for the British and French in World War I their stories have often been written out of history, much as Indigenous Australian soldiers have been written out in Australian war narratives (Claire G. Coleman brilliantly upended this “old lie” in her novel of the same title). Writing some of their stories back in though is only a small part of David Diop’s achievement in this novel.
Diop’s conversation with the Iliad does not seem to end with Alfa’s wrath. His depiction of war is of the rare potency of Homer’s, completely uninterested in strategy and maneuvers, instead focusing on the way war warps what it is to be human. At one point Alfa’s captain reprimands him, telling him “you will content yourself with killing them [the enemy], not mutilating them. The civilities of war forbid it”, brilliantly skewering the mental gymnastics that modern warfare requires. I was reminded of the war crimes committed by US soldiers in Iraq, or allegedly by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, and really, why should we be surprised? There’s something Homeric about Alfa’s descriptions of the battlefield, which draw on the imagery of his homeland, like the infamous “wine-dark sea” of the Greeks:
a place where a crowned crane couldn’t last an instant, … where not even the smallest plant can grow, not even the slightest shrub, as if thousands of locusts have been gorging themselves, without rest, month after month. A field sowed with thousands of tiny metallic seeds of war that produce no harvest. A scarred battlefield made for carnivores.
Achilles’ rage ultimately leads to his own death (and his immortal fame); Alfa’s too leads to a kind of annihilation, although one much more mystical and disturbing. It is equally interesting where the two narratives depart. In the Iliad, we learn little of the character’s histories, nor their futures, but are instead dropped into their eternal warring present. Alfa though recounts his childhood in Senegal; these later chapters are so rich, warm and lyrical, a brilliant contrast with the machine-like efficiency of the battlefield. If there is a way back for Alfa, it must be here in lore, love, family, story. Perhaps I am making too much of this Homeric connection, and certainly not enough of the novel’s Senegalese influences which the conclusion in particular seems to draw on; but as a Western reader it is hard to ignore the Iliad’s foundational position in stories of war.
So much of this novel unfolds in the writing and structure. Alfa repeats phrases incessantly – “I know, I understand”; “God’s truth”; the “insides outside” of Alfa’s victims; the evocative phrase “no man’s land” where Alfa takes his revenge – until they become hypnotic, a mantra or spell, their meanings shifting through the novel. Diop layers sentences upon sentences to build pictures, in much the way that Australian writer Gerald Murnane does. There is an exquisite geometry to the setting and writing, the two fronts facing off across no-man’s-land, the subterranean pathways of the trenches, the blue eyes of the enemy mirrored in the blue eyes of Alfa’s white comrades. “We were double,” Alfa emphasises several times, and this novel ultimately becomes a hall of mirrors, full of tricks and apparitions.
Gay rating: 2/5 for the “more-than-brothers” relationship between Alfa and Mademba.