F "What the Day Owes the Night" by Yasmina Khadra (Algeria) - Beyond Achebe: Reading the Continent

"What the Day Owes the Night" by Yasmina Khadra (Algeria)


This book is a perfect example of why reading fiction is important. Reading fiction like this forces the reader to internalize and grapple with historical events in a way that a straightforward history never could. In this case, by personalizing something like the Algerian independence struggle, the reader must reevaluate the dry numbers, facts and statistics littering the historical record and connect them to the actual people and struggles behind them.

"Horseshoes and Hand Grenades" History:
This review might not make a lot of sense if you don’t know some basics of Algerian history so here some “accurate enough” background: over the years, waves of settlers from Europe (Spain, France, Italy, etc.) came to Algeria and stole wide swaths of land from the Arabs and Berbers that lived there. For the purposes of this story (which takes place from 1900 to present day), many of these settlers came in the early 19th century and never returned to Europe. That meant successive generations settled and lived in Algeria and knew nothing else. They built farms, vineyards, lives, and communities as the minority ruling class. These people came to be referred to as pieds-noirs (i.e., black feet). There is some controversy as to the etymological background of the term and you can click the hyperlink in the previous sentence if you want to go down that rabbit-hole.

Eventually, the rising discontent of the Arab and Berber populace (you can read more about the Berber role in all this in my graduate school thesis) at the economic/social/political disparity grew to the point where a War for Independence erupted. There were lots of factors to this tipping point: the end of WWII in which many Algerian Arabs fought, bled and died for France and returned to their lives as third-class citizens; the French loss at Dien Bien Phu, the rising tide of independence spreading across the globe post-WWII, etc. In the end, the FLN (National Liberation Front) waged an 8-year guerilla war for independence that was notable for atrocities on both sides (but with some very brutal tactics by the French overlords--particularly when compared with the France’s far less vehement response to Morocco’s independence ‘struggle’) and which resulted in a free Algeria in 1962. This freedom led to the wholesale de facto expulsion of some 800,000 pieds-noirs to an unprepared France. Most of the 100,000 or so who would remain left in the ensuing decades. There you have it--down and dirty history lesson.

Have you ever dared?

What the Day Owes the Night is one of the saddest love stories you will ever read--in it you’ll witness the stillbirth of a romantic love and the lasting depth of a filial one. Khadra’s novel brings to mind the beautiful writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the melancholy sorrow of Neruda’s “Poem 20”, and the powerful narrative arc of Mahfouz’ The Cairo Trilogy. The height of the story’s narrative comes as the woman who should be the love of Younes’ life indicts him with the damning charge: Have you ever dared? And indeed, Younes’ sorry story is one of impotence as he never has dared and we bear witness to the slow disintegration of his life. In contrast, after centuries of subjugation, Algeria the country awakens and dares wildly, breaking its colonial chains, bloody link by bloody link. It’s in his ability to craft a story through these simultaneously ascending/descending narratives that Khadra displays true literary mastery.

Before going on, the author/pen name “issue” must addressed. Yasmina Khadra is the name you will find on the book cover but the author’s actual name is Mohammed Moulessehoul and he’s a former Algerian army officer. In an effort to circumvent scrutiny and censorship by the Army, he used his wife’s first two names beginning in 1997 (4 years later, he went public with his true identity after resigning from the Algerian military). In interviews he’s noted that he used his wife’s names with her permission and as a way to honor her. The crux of why this is an “issue” is because some in the public can’t imagine that someone who served in the Algerian military could not have helped but to partake in civilian massacres. Or at a minimum, many French critics just can’t accept any literary or cultural contributions from someone who participated in violence--even against terrorist groups. The author is fairly open about the horror and violence he has witnessed in his life and denies any wrongdoing and I haven’t found any credible evidence to support the allegations so for me there is no “issue.” Writing this as an American, I’d say “this is a free country, let people use whatever name they want” but we are talking about an Algerian quasi-exile living in France. You can scroll down to my “Key References” section and find several articles/interviews to learn more about this “controversy.” Now back to the actual book.

There’s a plaintive song that an old destitute barber sings early on in the novel while the young child Younes is still living in the slum of Jeane Jato:

I miss your eyes

And I go blind

Every time you look away

I die a little every day

Searching for you

In vain among the living

What does it mean to live this love
When all the world proclaims
That you are gone?
What will I do now with my hands
Now your body is not here… (53)


These lyrics serve in many ways as a soundtrack for this story. One its face, the lyrics describe Emilie and Younes at different points during their relationship. Emilie consistently searches for Younes “among the living”--searches for his love--to no avail throughout her time in Rio Salado. And in the end it is Younes who is tortured with a life of “dying every day” as the world proclaims that she is indeed gone--vanished, expelled with the pieds-noirs exodus from Algeria.

But on a deeper level the lyrics speak to the larger plight of the pieds-noirs community who find themselves living in a foreign country (i.e., France) following Algerian independence. This is the conundrum Younes’ lifelong pieds-noirs amis wrestle with in the novel’s closing pages: what do they do now with their hands, with their lives, now that her “body”--that is, the Algeria of their youth, is not there. The author’s treatment of the pieds-noirs in addressing these questions is surprisingly empathetic (particularly for an Algerian Arab) and even-handed as he creates complex characters who display a deep primordial love for the birthplace of their great-grandfathers--the land of Algeria. But it’s this very love that blinds them to “how” of the manner by which the countryside of Algeria became the land of their grandfathers. There’s a telling exchange (pgs. 284-7) between Younes and the overbearing quasi-feudal lord cum pieds-noir Jaime Sosa that begins with Sosa lecturing on the mission civilisatrice of his ancestors, “men who came here to a dead place and breathed life into it.” Sosa’s blindness to the blood and tears of the Arabs who did the bulk of the actual work as quasi serfs/slaves (and whose land was stolen) in “breathing life” into the land provokes Younes to perhaps his one act of courage as he responds with a poetic soliloquy that charges “this land does not belong to you. It belongs to that ancient shepherd whose ghost is standing next to you, though you refuse to see it.” It notable that Jaime is wholly unmoved by this and doesn’t bother to even respond to Younes.

Following this conversation we see the acceleration of the Algerian fight for independence, as the Front Liberation Nationale (FLN) steps up its violent campaign against pieds-noirs and equivocating muslims alike--notably Younes tries to straddle the line and finds himself saved from summary execution only by his one-time act of kindness to an arab servant turned rebel. As the FLN victory becomes assured we witness the implementation of le saison de la valise ou le cercueil (i.e., the suitcase or the coffin) with the wholesale exodus of pieds-noirs from Younes’ hometown of Rio Salado--to include Emilie.

Following Algerian independence, the narrative skips forward some thirty years to “present day” as Younes travels to Aix-en-Provence to visit Michel (Emilie’s son) and his old pieds-noirs friends. That the author gaps these thirty years is a profound statement on Younes’ life. This time period, in which Younes marries, has children, and grandchildren is covered in a few throwaway sentences, almost as an afterthought. Because of his inability to act, Younes’ entire outlook has become focused on his mispent past. Younes’ sentimental longing for his los is contrasted with the wider pieds-noirs communities’ own nostalgia--during their reunion his childhood friend Andre points out that “round here we don’t talk about nostalgia, we say nost-Algeria...Algeria still clings to me.” This leads to a discussion on the heavy toll of losing one’s country versus losing one’s friends, and love.

While the author Moulessehoul makes it clear that that there’s no easy answer to this, he does end the novel with a stark statement on the power of filial love, leaving the reader with Younes’ final farewell to his childhood friend Jean-Christophe: “We hug each other hard as once we used to hug our dreams to us, convinced that if we were to relax our grip, even a fraction, they would slip away.”

While this is a powerful sentiment, it stands as a distant second to what Younes gave up in committing the grave offense of not pursuing Emilie when he had the chance(s). In her own final attempt to coax him into action, Emilie implored him that “there is no crime, or shame, in love, except to sacrifice it, even for the best of reasons.” In this statement, the author offers the reader a call to action to pursue love at any cost. Indeed as the story comes to close, we are left to ponder what could have been had Younes followed his Uncle’s admonition: “Only love can make good the misfortunes and evils of the world. And remember this: if a woman loves you, no star is beyond your grasp, no god can touch you. Some of the last words from Younes’ uncle to him before dying...If you want your life to be a small part of eternity...love with all your strength, love as though it is all you know how to do, love enough to make the gods themselves jealous...for it is in love that all ugliness reveals its beauty.”

Key Quotes:

  • Every day these women would gather around the well and spend most of their time turning over the past as you might turn a knife in an old wound. (28) 
  • In describing a reknowned musician named Slimane, Younes admires his embodiment of “the greatest of virtues: discernment, a quality that is all but lost today.” (45) 
  • I miss your eyes /And I go blind/ Every time you look away/I die a little every day/Searching for you/ In vain among the living/ What does it mean to live this love/ When all the world proclaims/ That you are gone?/ What will I do now with my hands/ Now your body is not here… (53) 
  • Her smile was like a benediction, Younes visits his mother after his uncle adopts him. (80) 
  • Younes, seeing his failed, stumbling drunk father one last time: A look of such despair that it choked the life out of a noble father’s promises to his son. It was a look such as a man can give only once in his lifetime, since after it there is nothing. (88) 
  • For one searing instant, I mistook her for my destiny, Younes’ keen observation as he is seduced by Madame Cazenave--perhaps the great mistake of his life. (163) 
  • Younes observing the reaction to the FLN mobilization within the country: We knew Algeria was at war, that a seething anger festered among the people, but the villagers in Rio Salado seemed to care little about this. They built high walls around their happiness; walls with no windows to the outside world. (206) 
  • There is no crime, or shame, in love, except to sacrifice it, even for the best of reasons, Emilie to Younes as she makes a final fruitless effort to explain her love to him after Jean-Christophe’s disappearance (242) 
  • For a man to think he can fulfill his destiny without a woman is a misunderstanding, a miscalculation; it is recklessness and folly. Certainly a woman is not everything, but everything depends on her. Look around you, look at history, think about the whole world and tell me what man is without woman; what are his promises, his prayers when it is not her praise he sings? A man may be as rich as Croesus, as poor as Job, he may be a slave or a tyrant, but there is no horizon wide enough is woman turns her back...sunset, springtime, the blue of the sea, the stars in the sky...the rest, all the rest, exists simply to adorn her. Younes uncle counsels him to no avail. (249) 
  • Only love can make good the misfortunes and evils of the world. And remember this: if a woman loves you, no star is beyond your grasp, no god can touch you. Some of the last words from Younes’ uncle to him before dying. (273) If you want your life to be a small part of eternity...love with all your strength, love as though it is all you know how to do, love enough to make the gods themselves jealous...for it is in love that all ugliness reveals its beauty. The last words of Younes’ uncle. (355) 
  • The love of Younes’ life, Emilie, sentences him: Have you ever dared Younes, even once in your life? (308) 
  • You took my love for you and strangled it before it could take flight. Just like that...my love for you was dead before it even hit the ground. Emilie after an impotent, much too late attempt by Younes to profess his love. Also hearkens back to his days as a boy catching and selling finches. (309) 
  • Pieds-noirs--as though we’ve spent our whole lives trudging through mud, Dede in a letter to Younes from France as he comes to grip with his new reality. (357) 
  • The pieds-noirs in France were easily recognized as they “rolled their Rs with relish like stirring couscous.” (358) 
  • Pieds-noir Emilie utlimately ends up embracing a fatalistic view on her life as she says in her final words to Younes: Nobody is to blame, Younes, you don’t owe me anything. It’s just the way the world is, and I don’t want that anymore.” And with those last words, my heart broke for these characters, these people who were at once imagined and at the same time echoes of real lives captures by the author in this book. (362) 
  • Every generations has its own drugs, Younes comments to Emilie’s son Michel who has just lamented the booming consumerism prevalent in France. (366) 
  • Round here we don’t talk about nostalgia, we say nost-Algeria...Algeria still clings to me, childhood pieds-noir friend Andre shares with Younes as they discuss (as old men) the heavy toll of losing one’s country vs. losing one’s friends. (377-8) 
  • We hug each other hard as once we used to hug our dreams to us, convinced that if we were to relax our grip, even a fraction, they would slip away. Younes bidding a final farewell to his childhood friend Jean-Christophe. (389) 
Key Takeaways
  • Importance of land to farmers: Younes’ father had eyes “only for his land” (4) 
  • The pride of Younes’ father (his inability to accept Younes’ money) warps his own conception of everything: “I no longer understood anything. I was no longer certain of anything.” (49) 
  • The idea that poverty is noted fated but a state of mind. The poverty of Jenane Jato is that they did not dream. What then is the idea of a people who’s ability to dream has been crushed or stolen? (81) 
  • To the Europeans, time is money but to the Arab time has no price. This is similar to the adage about the US having all the watches but the Taliban having all the time. In the story’s case, Arabs find happiness apart from money--from simple shared experiences (85) 
  • 4th generation greeks in Oran (107) 
  • Oran referred to the “la ville americaine” because of its sophistication and grace and the idea of possibility that existed there. (141)
  • With the end of WWII, independence movements mobilized but were brutally suppressed. Younes’ uncle observes that the children of these movement died fighting for France in world war II only to have their family killed protesting back in Algeria (172) 
  • Poetry has always been the soul of Algeria (180). Here’s a link to the Algerian national anthem, We Pledge,: http://fuuo.blogspot.com/2010/07/poet-of-week-from-algeria-moufdi-zakaria.html
  • Again and again, Younes decides to do nothing in the face of a decision or conflict. He refuses to be the master of his own destiny. In this novel he represents a distinct part of colonial Algeria (280) 
  • There’s a great exchange that brings to live the terrible tension between the colonizers who viewed themselves as great men in the mission civilisatrice, men who “came here to a dead place and breathed life into it.” It’s telling that Younes’ one moment of bravery or courage comes in a poetic response to the Jaime Sosa’s solilquoy in which Younes charges that “this land does not belong to you. It belongs to that that ancient shepherd who ghost is standing next to you, though you refuse to see it. Jaime is unmoved. (284-287) 
  • Younes eventually loses his own sense of self to the point when he turns his own mother into a stranger as he questions her following his release from prison due to Isabelle’s intervention. (332) 
  • Younes’ uncle still dreams of an enlightened nation for Algeria (335) 
  • French talk of ‘self-determination’--De Gaulle June 1958 speech: I have understood you. En francais: je vous ai compris. But the pied-noirs likely don’t believe him and consider it an empty speech (337) 
  • December 1960, the non-Algerian villagers of Rio Salado come to the realization that Algeria will be Algerian. (338) 
  • Warfare between the OAS and FLN. The OAS was a secret paramilitary group formed by recalcitrant pied-noirs and the french military that ended up killing both muslims and French in terrorist attacks. The Front Liberation Nationale was the military arm of the Algeria’s independence fight and is estimated to have killed far more Algerians (i.e., muslim arabs) than French/pied-noirs. The FLN made this season of killing one of “the suitcase or the coffin” ("La valise ou le cercueil") as they strove to drive out remaining pied-noirs. (342) 
  • The book is also an examination of what is home? What is a nation? The pied-noirs settlers may have been there for generations and not know any home other than the countryside of Algeria but there were also only there for generations because there ancestors had stolen or appropriated the lands in the 19th century. (344) 
  • When the mass exodus of pied-noirs began, it brought with it a startling realization that is really was all over for them--but this gets to the idea that it never really began because it began in thievery, brutality and illegality (350). 
  • Pieds-noir Emilie utlimately ends up embracing a fatalistic view on her life as she says in her final words to Younes: Nobody is to blame, Younes, you don’t owe me anything. It’s just the way the world is, and I don’t want that anymore.” And with those last words, my heart broke for these characters, these people who were at once imagined and at the same time echoes of real lives captures by the author in this book. (362) 
  • Pieds-noire Gustave wonders during the discussion of the old men why they were all treated as one mass? He hits on one of the great political questions of the ages, the human tendency and political necessity to lump groups of people together. In this case, Gustave can’t come to grips to how he lost the country where his great-grandfather was born, that his family built with their own sweat and blood. Of course in these comments he displays his blindness to the sweat and blood of all the arabs who did most of the actual sweating and bleeding. (379) 
Key References (for further study):

Cities: Rio Salado (current day El Malah), Oran

Messali Hadj , who meets with Younes’ Uncle early on in the story(98)

Operation Catapult (122)

Max-Pol Fouchet presents Younes’ friend Fabrice with national poetry prize (179)

2013 CRS Report "Algeria: Current Issues"

North Africa Berber Language Map

My Grad School Thesis: Amazigh-State Relations in Morocco and Algeria

(78 and 79 footnote from thesis)

2005 Guardian arrticle on Khadra

2002 Guardian article on Khadra coming out as Moulessehoul

Article of Moulessehoul bid for Algerian Presidency

2006 New York review of "The Attack"

The Atlantic Chronology on Algerian War of Independence

Article on Jean-Senac: Poet of Algerian Revolution

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