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'At Night All Blood Is Black', winner of the 2021 International Booker Prize

'At Night All Blood Is Black', winner of the 2021 International Booker Prize

Congratulations then to David Diop and Anna Moschovakis, winners of the 2021 International Booker Prize as author and translator of At Night All Blood is Black. Their book beat 124 others to be awarded the prize when the announcement was made at Coventry cathedral, a building at the heart of this year’s City of Culture and, appropriately for a novel about the effects of war – both its humanising and dehumanising aspects – a symbol of regeneration, peace and reconciliation.

This was the first time the prize-giving ritual had taken place outside London and the virtual award ceremony pointed out that Coventry, the birthplace of the twin cities movement and a place with a diverse and youthful population, was an example of how “culture is a force that changes lives”.

The event included discussions with the authors and translators and readings from the shortlisted books by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company (the RSC just happens to be a local amenity, being just 20 miles from Coventry city centre). That was the limit to localism, however. As the chair of judges Lucy Hughes-Hallett, pointed out: “During the past year, we judges have barely left our homes and yet we have been travelling the world.”

With At Night All Blood is Black the judges travelled both to Senegal and the trenches of the First World War. The novel tells the story of two young men, closer than brothers, from rural Africa who join the fighting in Europe and when one of them is fatally wounded the other, Alfa – bereft, unhinged and far from home – descends into savage madness. It is a deeply unsettling book about the power of war to intensify friendships but unpick the mind.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett described the effect it had on the judges: “Its incantatory prose and dark brilliant vision had jangled our emotions and blown our minds. . . it cast a spell on us.” Earlier on in the presentation, the IBP’s administrator Fiammetta Rocco had asked “What is this alchemy that makes great fiction?”, perhaps that alchemy comprises jangled emotions, blown minds and spells cast.

Flanders Fields are hardly new territory for British readers but by inserting two Senegalese soldiers into the carnage, Diop recasts the killing fields and gives them a fresh strangeness. As Hughes-Hallett said: “If we are fully to engage with people from non-English-speaking cultures, we must be able to enter their imaginations. . . It is fiction above all that allows us to know the inside of other people’s minds.” Diop’s novel is a wonderful imaginative feat offering glimpses of not just his own mind but that of his two traumatised protagonists too. If Europeans found the trenches an utterly alien world, how much worse must it have been for soldiers who didn’t even have a culture in common with their fellow combatants?

In her comments, Hughes-Hallett also pointed out that translating “is the most modest and self-effacing of the literary arts” because “the very best translators make themselves invisible.” Touchingly, on hearing that he had won, Diop was determined not to let his creative partner Anna Moschovakis escape her moment in the sun. The £50,000 prize is shared equally between them and Diop made sure the credit for their win was too. In his very first sentence as the newly-revealed 2021 International Booker Prize winner he thanked Moschovakis, “a great writer and a great artist” in her own right. One got the impression that this was not just a piece of graciousness on Diop’s part but an expression of personal belief and heartfelt debt.

For her part, Moschovakis said it was not just a “thrill” to be in the company of the “wild and brilliant books” on the shortlist but was thankful above all to David Diop for “entrusting” her with his book, perfectly expressing the preciousness of the best works of fiction.

Last year’s winners, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and their translator Michele Hutchison, also took part in the ceremony and Rijneveld, when asked what winning the prize had meant to them over the past year, came up with an unusual response. As might be expected, the prize had “opened many, many doors” but, just as importantly “I’ve gained self-confidence. When I won, I thought, wow, yeah, I can do it. . . Now I have the feeling, yes, I can write, and that’s what I really want to be doing.” Not many readers, one feels, suspect that even some of the most accomplished novelists feel themselves to be on shaky ground, imposters in a world they feel belongs to others.

Diop didn’t let slip whether he too suffers from imposter syndrome but as a professor of 18th-century literature at the University of Pau who spends his time with some of the greats, he might. His win, however, means that At Night All Blood is Black will itself become a taught text and his own name become canonical. 

That starts in Coventry – the Booker Prizes haven’t done with the city yet – when 1,000 copies of Diop’s book will be distributed free to libraries and community groups for a virtual book group, The Big Coventry Booker Read, who will discuss the novel. For the winners of the 20201 International Booker Prize, it will be the first of many.