The latest book I’ve completed is anything but light holiday reading. In fact, it’s one of the most harrowing books I could pick. This winner of the International Booker Prize, garnering accolades in France, is a brutal, visceral experience. I appreciate it most for its very effective use of first-person narrative, strong (and again, effective) theme of duality / the double and mesmerizing quality of writing featuring phrases recurring like in a religious litany or chant.
This is such a powerful novella, with powerful introspective writing. Brings to the fore the horrors of war and paints the protagonist’s gradual descent into madness with vivid strokes that leave you terrified and breathless. The theme of “being double” is strong here, and effectively used. It shows how war brutalises and destroys soldiers. In the end, I was questioning my own sanity as a reader, considering the way the narrative turns! Such depth of madness so powerfully described!
It’s really a visceral experience to be put into the shoes of this particular protagonist – a Senegalese recruit in the French army during World War I whose decision not to end the suffering of a dying “more-than-brother” friend leads him down a brutal, violent spiral of madness as, in an act of vengeance fuelled by overwhelming grief, he begins killing enemy soldiers in the same way they killed his friend. Alfa is presented as a savage beast with a machete- a racial stereotype- and used in the war as a subhuman tool. His killing spree earns him the reputation of a sorcerer. We learn his backstory in elegantly presented flashbacks. That personal story is rich and affecting.
The climax is just as brutal and unrelenting as the rest.
The narrative uses biblical allusions and sexual language to describe the battlefields. Nothing is ever gratuitous, however. The narrative is conducted in the introspective first person. It’s a visceral experience to be put into the shoes of this protagonist. Never before have I appreciated the first person quite so much!We experience how Alfa’s sanity breaks down, unravels. I really questioned my own sanity towards the end. The writing reflects oral traditions and follows a mesmerizing rhythm, marked by recurring phrases that highlight the madness and brutality of the experiences and remind me of litanies. The phrases stay with you and resonate with you. Alfa questions existing rules as well.
One of my favourites is
“I became a savage through thinking.”David Diop
There are really many layers to the story, but it’s brutal, graphic, unrelenting, distressing. And the title? So powerful.
It’s a book to experience. It’s a book I won’t forget. But it’s a book that might not be for everyone. However, I think it deserves the accolades it has received and more. I will return to it as I don’t think one reading is enough to process everything fully. It warrants a second, or third time. It has all the makings of a classic in my view.
The French title seems to be something like Soul Brothers (Frere d’Ame, and this is kept in the Polish translation) – which feels like a kind of a play on Brothers in Arms- it reflects on the friendship of the protagonist with his dead brother but also on how the black soldiers are portrayed, dehumanised as tools. But I find the English title to be just as powerful.