The novel “Soul Brothers” (2018) by the French writer of Senegalese origin David Diop tells the story of the Senegalese indigenous infantry who fought for France during the First World War. The protagonist Alfa Ndiaye falls into a madness of revenge due to the tragic death of his comrade Madamba Diop in the charge. He was then sent to the rear, where he recalled his hometown and past events. At the end of the novel, Madamba’s soul is reborn in Alpha’s body, and they become true soul brothers.
The translation and publication of this novel made Chinese readers pay attention to a special group-Senegalese indigenous infantry from French West Africa during the First World War. These African soldiers left their hometowns to fight for France, but were treated unequally and received pensions much lower than that of white soldiers. This is a long neglected group in history. From the perspective of a black Senegalese soldier, “Soul Brothers” provides insight into the injustice of war, considers human nature, and explores an untouched realm of human spirit, bringing shocks to the depths of our souls.
The novel contains a large number of cultural symbols and metaphors, involving the beliefs, honors and customs of the Senegalese. The author used these elements to construct the protagonist’s spiritual world, cleverly created the time and space overlap between the “First World War” European battlefield and the hometown of West Africa before the war, constructing good and evil, beauty and ugliness, life and death, civilization and barbarism, and peace. Multiple contrasts with wars, etc. These contradictory poles collide, interweave, and merge into one, which is inextricably difficult to solve and presents the life tension of the Senegalese.
Ninety-four percent of Senegal’s population believes in Islam and has practiced five prayers a day and fasting in Ramadan since childhood. The teachings of Islam affect all aspects of people’s lives and permeate the habits and ways of thinking of all Senegalese. The West African homeland described in “Soul Brothers”-Ganjol, is full of strong Islamic style: an old man who has married four wives; a mother who prays in a low voice and recites the long apologetic words of the “Quran” during the separation; 12 Madamba, who can recite the Quran at the age of 15 years, and the Alpha, who can recite the scriptures at the age of 15 years old… In addition to Islam, the customs of fetishism are also reflected in the novels, such as the repeated “Soul Eater” “Zhe”, Wolof “d?mm” (devil, wizard), river goddess Ma Kumba Bang, etc.
“Sacrifice to the sheep” is a religious metaphor in the novel. It appeared repeatedly in Alpha’s consciousness, “He was opened and his intestines flowed out, like a sheep slaughtered in a sacrifice”; “According to Allah’s true meaning, if I was the same as I am now For friendship, I will cut his throat like a sacrificed sheep”; “When the enemy showed a pleading look for the second time, I cut his throat, just like slaughtering a sacrificed sheep… just like that. I rediscovered my humanity”, etc. “Sacrifice to the sheep” is related to the most important festival in Islam, the Eid al-Adha. The Prophet Ibrahim sacrificed his son Ismail in accordance with Allah’s will. At the last moment, Allah sent an angel to send a sheep instead of sacrifice. After the founding of Islam, Muslims recognized Ibrahim and respected him as the holy ancestor. When Muhammad was preaching in Mecca, Allah said: “I have given you much blessing, so you should worship and sacrifice for your Lord.” In Senegal, sheep are commonly used as sacrifices for Eid al-Adha . For Alpha, who has fallen into madness, the war has become a religious ritual. The soldiers on the battlefield are sacrificed sheep, and the devil has become the object of sacrifice. This metaphor implies the exploration of the boundaries between good and evil, gods and demons, as well as reflections on the relationship between religion and war. Under the madness of war, human nature disappears, the greatest evil can become a good deed, and religion becomes a cruel catalyst, losing its original truth.
“According to Allah’s true meaning”, this is a phrase that appears repeatedly in the novel. Simplicity and repetition are the expression characteristics of Wolof, the indigenous language of Senegal. For example, in Wolof, “what’s your name” and “my name is” are both “no tou dou”; acquaintances will keep repeating greetings when they meet, and so on. The characteristics of this Wolof language also affect the expression habits of French in Senegal. The repeated appearance of this phrase reflects the way of thinking of the Senegalese and is also a symbol of the protagonist’s religious and cultural identity.
Honor is a hidden theme in the novel, including three levels: individual, family, and country.
Alpha has a handsome appearance and a strong physique. He reads this information from everyone’s eyes and is proud of it. This pride from the body embodies the most primitive and instinctive needs of mankind, and it is also a gift from heaven to the Senegalese-they are slender, superior in physical fitness, and possess a sense of inherent superiority in the body. Alpha used this physique to kill the enemy on the battlefield, and the captain praised him for his courage and the power bestowed by nature. But when he fell into memories and contemplation behind him, he understood that “When a person has a wide chest and shoulders and thighs that are as strong as mine, it seems easy to show courage. However, the true brave is like Madan. People like Pakistan, despite their weak body, are not afraid of their fists.” For individuals, courage can win true honor. In the fable of the witch lion at the end, the princess married a heroic hunter, which is a reward for bravery.
Alpha said to Madamba: “Your totem is a bird, and my totem is a beast. The totem of the Ndiaye family is a lion, which is much more noble than the totem of the Diop family.” In the eyes of the Senegalese , Totem is a very serious matter. People must protect their totems, and totems will protect them. This protection is two-way. The family is the way in which Senegalese society is structured. The community is divided and managed according to the family, and the family elders are in charge of social affairs such as agriculture, fisheries, and law. Senegalese have a strong sense of family and honor, so when they charge on the battlefield, “the surnamed Diop, don’t want others to say that he is not as brave as the Ndiaye”, so “Captain Arnault blows At the screaming charge whistle, he howled like a barbarian and rushed out of the cave. The Keita and Sumarais were also struggling. Diaro and Faye , The surname of Cana is the same as that of Diuna, and those from Diana, Kuluma, Beye, Fakuri, Sale, Dean, Seck, Ka, Cisse, En Dur…the soldier of the family”. In the war, people became crazy and fragile, and the honor of the family was left in vain.
During the First World War, as part of French West Africa, 200,000 people in Senegal fought for France. Senegalese have a contradictory duality in their feelings towards France: on the one hand, they hate colonizers and long for national independence; on the other hand, they “share honor and disgrace” with France all the time in the international community. Take football as an example. In the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, Senegal knocked out France in an upset, and the Senegalese had a sigh of pleasure; in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, when the French team won the championship, Senegal was full of joy and honor. This kind of ambivalence is also expressed in “Soul Brothers”. Alpha’s father opposed the colonial ruler’s policy of planting peanuts and insisted on growing crops in a traditional self-sufficient way. But once France fell into war, his son went to the battlefield to fight for the honor of the country. Alpha and Madamba believed that the war was an opportunity. They wanted to take this opportunity to become French citizens, become “big men”, and bring glory to themselves and their family.
David Diop said in an interview with the French magazine “The New Observer” that he liked the surrealist poet Apollinaire’s Bleuet very much. He quoted a few lines in the poem: “A 20-year-old young man has seen such terrible things… You have absorbed the lives of those who died by your side… You know death better than life.” This poem describes a 20-year-old soldier who sees thousands of people killed in the war and thinks about life and death. Apollinaire’s father was Italian and his mother was Polish. He joined the army after the outbreak of the First World War and was seriously injured in the battle. He wrote this poem during his recuperation in Paris in 1917. The following year, he died of flu. Apollinaire joined the army because he was discriminated against in France because of his foreign status. He wanted to fight for his honor and prove his French status. But what he didn’t expect was the cruelty of the war, because “World War I” was the first real industrialized war in the true sense of the word. Those Senegalese soldiers, like Apollinaire, fought for the status of French citizens and for the honor of themselves and their families. 30,000 people died in the European battlefield.
The novel’s interpretation of friendship is very clever. At the end, the narrator “I” kept torturing who he was. Through a fable of scars and identity, he discovered that he was Madamba, the man who died at the beginning of the novel, whose soul was reborn in Alpha’s flesh. They become true soul brothers. The novel poetically expounds the connotation of friendship in an allegorical way. Only then did we understand the author’s quotation of the Senegalese writer Sheikh Hamidou Kane’s work on the title page-“I am the two who played at the same time.” One voice, one voice goes away, and the other rises.”
After Alpha lost his mother, Madamba brought him home and let his mother adopt him. They grew up together and studied the Quran together. Alpha is tall and strong, Madamba is short and weak; Alpha likes to work in the fields, likes to dance and fight, and Madamba likes to study. They are two completely different kinds of people, but they are in love with the same girl—Fari Tiam. Madamba is jealous of Alpha’s physical beauty and Fari’s love for him. The people of Ganjol told Madamba that Alpha is a soul eater, “d?mm”, and it is he who has absorbed the vitality of Madamba. If you don’t leave him, Madamba’s soul will dry up and turn into powder. But these have not changed Madamba’s love for Alpha. In order to defend Alpha, he is not afraid of the fists of strong young people. The school planted in Madamba’s head the idea of liberating France, the “motherland mother”. He wanted to become a French citizen through war, so he took Alpha to join the army. Alpha helps Madamba gain strength and weight and become a fighter; he also likes to laugh at Madamba and even his family’s totem. They can make any jokes at will-this kind of brotherhood replaces the war and dispels the grievances between the two families and the two surnames. After Madamba’s death, Alpha took his body back to the battlefield. Alpha regretted letting Madamba die in pain and humiliation, and he fell into crazy revenge and endless memories. At the end, Madamba’s soul was reborn in Alpha’s body. It was Alpha who gave up his body out of friendship and sympathy.
“Soul Brothers” brings the Senegalese indigenous infantry, who has been forgotten by history, back to the reader’s sight. This writing is of great historical significance on the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. It condemns the cruelty and hypocrisy of the war and pays tribute to the Senegalese soldiers who shed blood and died in the war.
David Diop has the dual cultural identity of France and Senegal. The translation of this novel in China has broadened the horizons of Chinese readers and allowed us to extend our sights to the far corner of West Africa. Under the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, China and Senegal have increasingly closer exchanges in the economic and cultural fields. More and more Senegalese are beginning to know and understand China, and China’s influence is increasing day by day. During this period, we also hope to see more and more literary works describing Africa being translated and introduced in China, so that more Chinese readers can understand the continent of Africa.