Yesterday he was your nephew, today he is our son.

Posted on May 31, 2012

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What the Day Owes the Night

The book opens with Younes, the son of an illiterate Muslim farmer, contemplating his father’s uncharacteristic happiness. The happiness is short-lived (happiness is in short supply throughout the novel in fact).  After an arson attack on their promised harvest, the family is forced to move to a city slum in the coastal town of Oran.  But Younes’s father is further cursed. He loses what little money he has in a con and is forced to hand Younes into the care of Younes’s successful uncle and French Catholic aunt. Thus, Younes becomes Jonas, shifts from nephew to son, moves from the Muslim city of Oran to the European town of Rio Salado. This sequence of events is the first of many extended metaphors on which the book is built.

As Jonas grows up he forms friendships with three boys, all of European descent – two French, Fabrice and Jean-Christophe and one Jewish, Simon.  Their friendship starts in violence and ends with rejection.  Between these different representatives of Algeria we see the history of the country played out.  But throughout, Jonas is a by-stander. An adopted guest in the house of his uncle and aunt, he seems passive at every key moment in his own life, as if he feels himself also to be a guest in the life of his friends, too polite to ask for what he wants, passively watching as everyone else grabs what they want most – the beautiful Emilie.  In turn, Emilie has relationships with Fabrice, Jean Christophe, and finally Simon, whom she marries and with whom she has a child. But it is always Jonas that she loves. He only has to say he loves her in return and she will be his. Sadly, two things stand in the way.  A promise Jonas has made to Emilie’s mother, a woman who seduced Jonas years before, didn’t want him, but doesn’t want him to have her daughter, and his friendship with Jean Christophe, who is devastated when he realises that Emilie only truly love Jonas.   In doing nothing to win Emilie, Jonas proves himself to be a good man, but condemns himself and all around him to unhappy lives. Ultimately the prize, Emilie, is won by no one and the cost of the fight leaves nothing left worth having.

At various points in the book, it opens with Jonas’s father losing their ancestral land, and ends with a group of forced emigrants living in Aix en Provence talking as old men about the country they left behind, the book deals with heritage, ownership and belonging.  When Jonas first lives with his uncle, his uncle takes him into a room to show him pictures of his ancestors, primarily is great-grandmother, detailing where they came from and how they built and lost a fortune.  This scene is mirrored when the local landowner (of Spanish descent), stands with Jonas looking out over his vineyards at the start of the war of independence and describes his own great-grandfather’s efforts to develop the barren land, explaining why he belongs to the land and the land to him, as surely as to any Arab.  The key to Jonas’s character is in his reply.  Jonas imagines in return the Berber shepherd boy who walked the land before any of their ancestors, contented, and at peace. Who did not want to own the land, or shape the land, but was happy to exist in harmony with it.

By the end of the book, when Jonas flies to France to visit Emilie’s grave, the tragedy of Jonas’s inability to fight for what he wants is explicitly laid out. At any point, Emilie would have accepted Jonas if he’d only fought harder for her.  For me, although epic in length, Jonas and Emilie’s love story is at such a remove, so unexplored, that it has little effect on the reader. The real emotional punch lies in the relationship Jonas has with his friends. Friends he believes reject him because he’s an Arab.  It is never clear whether they do think this or whether Jonas imagines these attitudes on their behalf. Perhaps both.  Ultimately, it is Jonas’s relationship with Jean-Christophe, which moves us.   Throughout the book, Jonas appeals to Jean-Christophe for reconciliation, perhaps his most active moments are when he does so, only to be rejected over and over.  It doesn’t matter to Jean-Christophe that Jonas didn’t end up with Emilie, he was the one she loved and everyone else was a loser.  It isn’t until the final pages of the book, when in almost too late, when they are old men with no fight left, that we are shown what their friendship has meant to both of them.  And like wining a country devastated by decades of war, it is a moment of happiness and of sadness. Sadness at a cost that could have been spared.  Sadness at the waste of so much time.

Although the book works its extended metaphors hard – the parallels between the characters and their place in the colonial argument is all too clear – they never swamp the plot which can easily be read for its surface story alone.  It’s beautifully written. Evocative in its sense of lost place and time, the beautiful seaside towns of pre-independence Algeria, the vineyards, the dances, the easy friendships between different nationalities and religions and the instinct for the modern. While the talk of the women, as they sit in their courtyard in the slum, exposes a different side of this world, helpless and forgotten yet nonetheless rich, intimate, full of texture and warmth.   Khadra pulls off a balancing act between all the factions without ever revealing his own attitude to any of them.  In fact, you are left with a sense that he loves them all. Understands the place of all of them in Algeria’s history.

As a footnote, if you’re thinking of reading this novel, don’t read any interviews with Khadra before doing so. You may not like him, and they will put you off reading his work, which would be a shame.  The novel is less angry and more evenhanded than its novelist.

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