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The World(s) of David Diop

Franklin Nelson


‘To be seen, the story hidden beneath the well-known story has to peek out a little bit. If the hidden story hides too well beneath the well-known story, it stays invisible. The hidden story has to be there without being there, it has to let itself be guessed at… When it’s understood by those for whom it is intended, the story hidden beneath the well-known story can change the course of their lives, can push them to transform a diffuse desire into a concrete act. It can heal them from the sickness of hesitation, no matter the expectations of an ill-intentioned storyteller.’

This passage is taken from towards the end of David Diop’s best-selling second novel, At Night All Blood Is Black (2018). Translated by Anna Moschovakis from the French original, Frère d’âme, it won the 2021 International Booker Prize, and this extract is revealing about Diop’s oeuvre as a whole. Diop has spent his career as a kind of literary excavator, peeling back the layers to reveal ‘the story hidden beneath the well-known story’, often concerning forgotten or silenced voices, and conveying those stories in nuanced, lyrical prose. Whether bringing black or white, younger or older characters to life, his fictive worlds are informed by history – a blend of the real and the imagined, in which diffuse desires and concrete acts leave their mark. In the sense that we are all creatures of history, these stories are for and about everyone.

A professor of eighteenth-century French and Francophone literature at the University of Pau for more than two decades, Diop’s academic and creative work has spanned the centuries and two continents – a result of his ‘double cultural sensitivity’, as he put it in an interview with The Guardian in 2021. Born in Paris in 1966, Diop grew up in Dakar before returning from Senegal, aged 18, to France as a student and earning a PhD in French literature at the Sorbonne. In 2012, he published his debut novel, 1889, l’Attraction universelle. The attraction alluded to is the Exposition Universelle, better known as the 1889 Paris Exposition, a world fair that drew participants from numerous countries and for which the Eiffel Tower was built. In the novel, which has yet to be translated into English, we follow an eleven-strong delegation from Senegal as it confronts European ideas of race around the fair, in which those men and women end up not participating. 

In his second novel, the protagonists are very much participants – in the First World War. Told in pacy prose, with chapters as short as a few pages, At Night All Blood Is Black follows Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop, Senegalese tirailleurs – members of the colonial light infantry fighting for France – who are, as per the original French title, brothers of the soul as well as brothers-in-arms. After failing to live up to his courage by refusing to kill Mademba Diop when his soul brother sustains a gory injury, Alfa Ndiaye falls victim to an increasingly warped vision of masculinity, in part because of his other comrades’ racist ideas. All the while, untold stories get a hearing, as in this passage near the opening:

‘A Diop would not want it said of him that he is less courageous than a Ndiaye […] Same rivalry between the Keïtas and the Soumarés. Same thing between the Diallos and the Fayes, the Kanes and the Thiounes, the Dianés, the Kouroumas, the Bèyes, the Fakolis, the Salls, the Diengs, the Secks, the Kas, the Cissés, the Ndours, the Tourés, the Camaras, the Bas, the Falls, the Coulibalys, the Sonkhos, the Sys, the Cissokhos, the Dramés, the Traorés.’

What starts as a series of pairs quickly becomes a torrent of names that does not let up, in defiance of history’s attempts to brush over them. The list calls to mind the writers Rokhaya Diallo, Gaël Faye, Cheikh Hamidou Kane and Ahmadou Kourouma, all of whom have shaped Francophone letters in recent decades. Beyond literature, the Ivorian-born Touré brothers, who have played for top European football clubs, and even Malian-born Adama Traoré, whose death in police custody in Paris in 2016 has yet to result in criminal charges, come to mind. In a twist on the notion of a ‘double sensitivity’, at the book’s close it is Mademba Diop who returns from the other world to help his severely mentally ill ‘more-than-brother’ by seizing control of the narration. In doing so, the dead man enables the stories of himself, his friend and others like them to be seen.

 Visions of self and other, stories doubled and shared, also lie at the heart of Diop’s third novel, La Porte du voyage sans retour (2021), translated into English by Sam Taylor as Beyond the Door of No Return (2023). No doubt a beneficiary of Diop’s International Booker win, this latest novel has sold more than 120,000 copies in France. In 2021, it was also longlisted for the Prix Goncourt, the country’s premier literary award. Whereas the French title explicitly indicates a journey, in English this is only implicit. Nevertheless, both titles suggest that, by the book’s end, the characters and potentially the readers who encounter them will be changed. 

Told in the first and third person, the novel sees Diop dive into his academic specialism by evoking (with artistic licence) Michel Adanson, an eighteenth-century French botanist and naturalist who travelled to Senegal to study flora and fauna. ‘[I]nstead I encountered people’, Adanson observes in his notebooks, which are bequeathed to his daughter, Aglaé. In what follows, Aglaé reads of her father’s journey through the African country, which coincides with the height of the transatlantic trade in enslaved people and involves his encounter with a woman named Maram Seck. Long absent from her own community, she is widely (but wrongly) believed to have been abducted and trafficked. 

On returning to France, and despite falling for Maram, Adanson pens a pro-slave trade pamphlet. In a 2021 interview with Radio France, the national public radio broadcaster, Diop said that using fiction had allowed him to depict the botanist in ‘all his complexity’, adding, ‘Literature should not create borders.’ No ill-intentioned storyteller, David Diop’s novels transcend frontiers of time, genre, geography and judgement. They foreground overlooked lives and spotlight lacunae in Western accounts of the past, not in such a way that they feel didactic, but as works of an historically informed literary imagination. To read him is to be invited, as it were, to help fill in the gaps with care and creativity.

Photo by Alice Joulot