Algerian author Yasmina Khadra has gained acclaim throughout the world as much for his novels The Swallows of Kabul and The Attack which thoughtfully examine conflict in Afghanistan and Palestine respectively, as for the mystery surrounding his identity. An officer in the Algerian army, Mohammed Moulessehoul used his wife’s name as a pseudonym under which to publish his books in order to avoid being censored by the military until he retired and relocated to France. In What the Day Owes the Night, Khadra melds a bildungsroman about a young man with the coming-of-age story of the Algerian nation as it claims its independence.
Ten-year-old Younes learns lessons about hardship and misfortune early in life when his peasant father’s anticipated harvest of plenty is set on fire in an anonymous act of malice. Bankrupt and forced to surrender his family’s lands, Younes’ father moves his family to Oran, a nearby city. Younes recounts, “There is nothing cruder than the inequalities of a city. Walk around a block and day becomes night, life becomes death.” Initially, Younes’ father is too prideful and stubborn to accept anything more than the most minimal financial assistance from his brother, Mahi, who enjoys a prosperous life as the owner of a pharmacy in the European section of the city and is married to a woman of European descent. However, as he finds himself unable to turn the tide of his own fate and that of his family, Younes’ father abruptly takes up his brother’s offer, allowing him to raise his only son as his own.
Subsequently, Younes—now called “Jonas”—receives a privileged upbringing with parents who dote on him and provide him with an education. At the same time, Younes comes to realize that Mahi feels conflicted about the societal status he has achieved. Mahi is arrested for his involvement in the Algerian movement for independence, but even in these efforts, his conviction is compromised. “The gossips said that before the police even put him in the van my uncle was a broken man, that he had confessed everything he knew as soon as he was questioned.” The identity struggle of the successful Muslim who has assimilated into the Western world is one that Yasmina Khadra has reflected upon previously in his writing. In his novel The Attack, the protagonist is a gifted Palestinian surgeon who has cultivated a comfortable life and earned the respect of his Israeli peers, only to have his world shattered when his beloved wife is confirmed to have committed a suicide attack. In an effort to understand the meaning behind her actions, he returns to the Palestinian village he grew up in and is forced to revisit the hardship and poverty that he was able to leave behind.
Feeling disgraced, Mahi relocates his family to Rio Salado “…a beautiful colonial village with leafy streets lined with magnificent houses.” In Rio Salado, Younes discovers the relationships that will prove transformative for him. He becomes friends with five local boys who accept him even though he is the only Muslim in their group. He loses his virginity to a mysterious French woman whose husband has disappeared overseas, only to later fall in love with her daughter. The rivalry to win the affections of Émilie strains the kinship between the boys as they emerge into adulthood.
Seemingly without warning, the war for independence erupts in Algeria. The violence has tragic consequences for Younes’ friends and even Émilie’s family is affected. Younes’ ambivalence regarding the conflict is tested when he finds himself forced at gunpoint to abet the freedom fighters first by letting an injured commander take refuge in his house and then by clandestinely delivering medical supplies to them. When he is captured, ironically by an Arab who sympathizes with the colonists, it is an influential European nobleman in Rio Salado who secures his release. Younes bears witness to the obliteration of Algeria as ruled over by colonial powers through his frantic search to find Émilie who left Rio Salado for Oran with her young son after her home was burned down. “Algerian Algeria was being delivered by forceps in a torrent of tears and blood as French Algeria lay bleeding to death.” Younes cannot reclaim Émilie in the same way that the colonists cannot maintain their claim over Algeria.
As an author, Khadra carefully avoids taking sides through his narration of the conflict. Though he acknowledges the harm that colonialism inflicted upon native Algerians, the Europeans he depicts are well-rounded beings whose primary concern is preserving their way of life. As Younes’ neighbor from childhood laments later in life, ‘“Not everyone was a colonist, not everyone went round slapping a riding crop against their aristocratic boots; some of us didn’t have any boots at all.”’ Thus, the sense of loss they experience when they evacuate Algeria is not of power but of a homeland. Despite Khadra’s years of experience in the masculine military environment, his sensitivity towards his female characters is striking. Of the women Younes’ family shares their dilapidated tenement in Oran with, he writes, “The women stuck together, they supported each another [sic] if one was ill, the others would make sure there was food in her pot, look after her baby, take turns sitting by her bedside.” Though Émilie’s presence drives a rift that is nearly insurmountable through the youthful friendships Younes has cultivated in Rio Salado, she is never portrayed as having malicious intent. Khadra’s prose is creative and intelligent, describing a host of situations ranging from the pangs of love to the austerity of senseless violence with deftness.
The final fifty pages of What the Day Owes the Night serve as the epilogue. Younes, now an old man, journeys to France where Émilie’s son takes him to visit the grave of his recently-deceased mother. It is also an opportunity for him to see his friends who fled Algeria in the wake of its independence. Contemporary Algeria has faltered in its quest to thrive as a new nation due to the rise of Islamic insurgency. As Younes is about to board the plane to return to his homeland from France, he reconnects with someone very dear to him, the parting implication of the novel being that some ties are more valuable than unfulfilled love.
1. Anonymous. “Reader, I’m a He.” The Guardian, 22 June 2005. Web. 17 Apr. 2019.