French author David Diop wins £50,000 International Booker Prize with 'At Night All Blood is Black'

Story about two Senegalese soldiers fighting for France in the First World War beat five other finalists to take the top prize

(FILES) This file photo taken  in Paris on September 20, 2018 shows French writer David Diop posing during a photo session. French writer David Diop wins the International Booker Prize 2021 and becomes first French winner, with his second novel 'At Night All Blood is Black'. / AFP / JOEL SAGET
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French novelist David Diop has won the prestigious International Booker Prize for his novel, At Night All Blood is Black, which is set during the First World War.

The award is a sister prize to the Booker Prize for novels written in English.

The Paris-born writer became the first French winner of the prize, awarded for a book translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland, in a ceremony broadcast online from Coventry Cathedral in central England.

British author Lucy Hughes-Hallett, chair of the judges, said "this story of warfare and love and madness has a terrifying power".

"We judges agreed that its incantatory prose and dark, brilliant vision had jangled our emotions and blown our minds," she said. "It had cast a spell on us."

She added that the book didn’t win “because it speaks to the current conversation about racial politics”, but because “it spoke to us with the most power”.

"I'm extremely happy to have won this prize," Diop said in French. "It's very interesting and gratifying for me. This really shows that literature has no borders."

The book's translator Anna Moschovakis won half the £50,000 ($70,850) prize, which also recognises the role of translators.

"It's taken me by surprise," Moschovakis said. "I'm so thrilled about how this will even further increase the number of people who encounter this book, which I feel so fortunate to have been able to translate.

"A translation is neither one nor two people's work, but sort of a collaboration between an author, a translator and the book, which I think is always very exciting."

Diop's novel tells the story of two Senegalese soldiers fighting for France in the trenches of the First World War. When one, Mademba, is killed, the other, Alfa, descends into ever greater violence and madness.

Diop, who was brought up in Senegal, was inspired by the fact that his Senegalese great-grandfather fought in the war but never spoke about his experiences.

The book was first published in 2018 with the French title Frere d'ame ("soul brother"), a play on words, as it sounds like "frere d'armes" or brother-in-arms.

Moschovakis said this was a "beautiful pun", but she opted to change the title in English because it "would be impossible to actually translate".

The book's London publisher Pushkin Press tweeted: "Impossibly proud of David Diop and his translator Anna Moschovakis."

The International Booker Prize, formerly known as the Man Booker International Prize, has been awarded since 2005, when it was won by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare.

Diop's novel beat other contenders including Jewish-Russian family history In Memory of Memory by Russian writer Maria Stepanova and imaginative short-story collection The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Argentina's Mariana Enriquez.

– Additional reporting by AFP and AP