Review: 2 novels – Africa in Europe during WW1

Co-incidently I recently read two novels which dealt with the First World War in Africa. It wasn’t planned, it just happened. Thankfully they turned out to be two rather different books.

I’m not sure how I came across Simon called Peter by Robert Keable as it dealt purely with the Western Front. The Africa link is tangential – two women nurses and an officer are from South Africa. The officer ends up in charge of a Labour Corps unit. We get very little insight into the daily workings of the Labour unit, the focus of the book being on Peter who is called Solomon by one of the nurses. The story focuses on Peter’s adjustment to life as a chaplain on the frontlines. One often reads about those back home betraying the love of those fighting or being away from home – the ‘Dear John’ letter being the meme. However, in Simon called Peter, it’s the other way round. Why the author chose South Africans for additional characters, I’m not sure as, apart from Julie’s extravertedness, there is nothing stereotypical about their characters that I could discern. According to The New York Times of 1929, this is a semi-biographical story with Keable going to Europe with a South African contingent after spending time in East and Southern Africa before the war. Does Keable’s depiction of the South Africans he includes suggest that back in 1921 when this book was published, there was little difference between white South Africans and Britons?
It’s a bit of a challenge putting this book into the World War 1 Africa listing as a result, but it is worth a read for an alternative take on the war. As a result of this, I will soon be reading his Standing by: war-time reflections in France and Flanders published around 1919 which has 22 direct references to Africa, so watch this space.

The other book was At night all blood is black (originally written and published in French as Frère d’âme) by David Diop. This was brought to my attention by a contact in Kenya soon after the book was released in 2020. And it’s taken till 2022 to get read. This is a short book – it took a 3 hour return tube journey from home to the archives to finish it. Although a little too abstract for my liking, the book explores the mind of a French West African (Senegalese) soldier on the Western Front – his blood lust and how that developed, how he perceived his fellow soldiers’ attitudes towards him change and his time in a recuperative (psychiatric?) hospital. There is much repetition of phrasing which I assume to be cultural, while potentially distracting, together with a poetical lilt, it did add an element of authenticity I have often found missing in African books published in America and Britain. Discovering that Diop was born in France and spent his formative years in both Senegal and France with parents from both countries might well account for this. It certainly explains the more egalitarian-appearing relationship between the characters, which together with the reference to Toubabs (whites) took me back to my short visit to Senegal where I experienced a more egalitarian engagement with the local population than I have in East African countries. At no stage of the book is it made clear that Toubab means white. It is inferred through reference to the rank and file being Chocolat alongside the Toubab officers.
While clearly a book for the WW1 Africa novel list, this is another worthwhile read for a further different take on war – particularly one in English focusing on a French-speaking experience of the war.

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