Literary wanderings: Severed hands, hanging threads and unresolved endings

A hand holds a severed hand against a barbed wire background.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

“I know, I understand, I shouldn’t have done it. I, Alfa Ndiaye, son of the old, old man, I understand, I shouldn’t have.” So begins David Diop’s incantatory, recursive novel, “At Night All Blood is Black,” a story mired in the wasteland of World War I trench warfare and the unexpected horrors such a landscape is capable of producing.

Alfa, our narrator, and his “more-than-brother” Mademba, are young Senegalese men enlisted by the French to fight in the war — a conflict that, until they were forced into the trenches, had nothing to do with them.

What begins as a war story, however, gradually morphs into horror as Alfa describes the tragic and gruesome circumstances of Mademba’s death. The victim of a surprise attack, he now lays dying an agonizing death on the muddy battlefield, Alfa by his side. Mademba begs Alfa to kill him, to release him from his pain and suffering, but Alfa cannot bring himself to do this horrifying act — to kill his most beloved friend. And so all he can do is watch Mademba slowly die.

In the days after, the haunting images of that night still echoing in every corner of his mind, something breaks within Alfa — a part of his rationality and humanity shatters, giving way to a morbid kind of madness.

This is where Diop’s slender novel — a novella, really, it could quite easily be read in a sitting — truly takes a turn into the bizarre. Each night, Alfa creeps out into the yawning blackness of no man’s land and returns with a severed hand from an enemy soldier whom he has killed. At first the other French soldiers praise his heroics, but as the ritual continues the novelty wears, changing his reputation in the camp from super-soldier to sorcerer and devourer of souls.

It is at this point in the book, with the reader’s expectations having thoroughly been subverted at every turn, that Diop has a truly captive audience. He has taken the story into unexpected and outlandish territory, weaving in powerful meditations on race and masculinity, and the reader is now waiting, with no remaining preconceptions, to see what happens next.

Amid the dizzying escalation of violence and madness — reflected in the increasingly frantic and repetitive language of the story — the reader expects this all to come to some sort of shocking crescendo.

It doesn’t. What starts out so promisingly unfortunately fizzles before finally falling flat in one of the more ambiguous — frankly unintelligible — endings I have read in recent years. In other words, a complete and utter letdown. Diop takes us to the heights of suspense and the depths of madness and then drops us off at some unspecified point in the middle: unremarkable, forgettable and unresolved.

For lovers of an unresolved ending, it is important to point out that I am, in a vast majority of cases, among your ranks. The author granting the reader the freedom to imagine the vast array of different possibilities and come to their own conclusions is not only oftentimes a tactful aesthetic choice, but also a gift to the reader.

It is perhaps, for these reasons among many others, that the unresolved ending is such a relatively common stylistic choice. As Tim Parks points out in his piece for The New York Review of Books, this is especially true in the pages of “serious literary fiction” where the happy ending is often eschewed as trite and blasé.

However, the ubiquity of unresolved endings in literature should not by any means suggest that they are easily achieved; a book that manages such an ending successfully is worthy of praise. In “Life of Pi,” was Pi really stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger, or was his entire oceanic adventure made up? In “Great Expectations,” what will happen to Pip as he returns home?

“At Night All Blood is Black” was, for me, a prime example of an unfortunate failed attempt. Rather than the traditional unresolved ending or even the cryptic or obscure ending, the reader is left with something more like a “what-the-hell-has-he-been-mumbling-about-for-the-last-ten-

pages” ending. Diop yanks Alfa from the rich setting of the battlefield and drops him in a military hospital, the book’s rising tension thoroughly crushed in one fell swoop. In the end we are left simply with the ramblings of Alfa, now completely mad, as he lives out his days, pining after a nurse.

Shortly after finishing the novel I took to the internet, searching for some clarity. Had I misread something or overlooked some key detail? I only found similarly confused readers, sharing increasingly weird and zany possibilities for what Diop was trying to do in those final pages. I, for one, was not inspired enough by the book to stick around and try to figure it out.

Unresolved endings, while relatively common in the world of literary fiction, can either be employed to incredible effect — engaging the reader’s imagination to speculate on the multiplicity of possible outcomes and consider what this says about the book as an artistic or philosophical piece — or they can feel like an uncertain author throwing up their hands, not entirely sure how to land the plane.

In the case of “At Night All Blood is Black”, an arresting start to the novel gives way to an unfortunately unsatisfying ending, not for its lack of closure, but for its lack of vision and execution.

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. He has been writing about books for the paper for two years — this is his last article.

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