Review: Frère d’âme, by David Diop
Hot damn this was a glorious book (and yes, it is available in an English translation, here). This is a short but powerful novel about Alfa Diaye, a Senegalese soldier in the French army during World War I (and I will just flag - this book is graphic, and I mean graphic. The descriptions of battle and gore and sex and some light rape wouldn't be out of place in a Stephen King novel. If that's not your thing, maybe consider giving this one a pass.)
The story basically is that of Alfa and his friend Mademba, Senegalese soldiers sent off to the trenches to fight on behalf of the French army. Alfa and Mademba are childhood friends, and the backstory of their friendship and of Alfa's childhood are told in flashbacks as Alfa tells the story of his experience in the trenches.
This book does an awful lot in a very few pages (it clocks in at 145 pages). It's an exploration of fetishization, colonization, the way racism was used both as a tool of war and a way to keep black soldiers in line, and of course the horrific nature of trench warfare, and the multiple different ways PTSD can manifest. I loved the way Alfa's voice was rendered throughout the novel, the way he shared his story in a tone that reminded me almost of an incantation, and how that underlined the horrific nature of his own actions in the war, and how it reinforced the memories of the stories he was sharing. The way the flashbacks were interwoven into his monologue, the way he told the story of his and Mademba's friendship only after Mademba died (that's the first line of the book so it's not a spoiler!), serves very cleverly to elevate the pathos of the story and just increases the gut punch of emotion that is the ending.
And the writing is just unbelievably exquisite. David Diop's utter mastery over Alfa's voice and the oral-history style of the prose is unparalleled in anything I've read recently, and I adored every single sentence of this book even as some of the descriptions turned my stomach. I tore through this book in less than a day because I could not bring myself to look away from the beauty of the writing and the magnificent rendering of the tortured state of Alfa's soul. This book is in the running for my Top 1o of 2021 list, and I want David Diop to write another book ASAP Rocky so I can read more of his work.
All told - I highly, highly, highly recommend.