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The center of Yasmina Khadra’s lush novel, What the Day Owes the Night, is a painful story of unrequited love, certainly one of the most powerful and moving depictions of frustrated passion I have encountered in many years. Although the author uses a female pseudonym, both he and his protagonist are male. Years ago, at the beginning of his writing career when he was still an officer in the Algerian army, Khadra took a female pseudonym to “avoid submitting his manuscripts for approval by the army.” With the success of his earlier works, there was no reason not to continue using “Yasmina.”
In the central story, a seventeen-year-old Muslim Algerian named Younes is seduced by a woman old enough to be his mother. The woman is Madame Cazenave, who comes to the pharmacy where Younes’ adoptive parents work in order to get a prescription filled. When Younes delivers the medicine to her house later in the day, she initiates him into sexual activity. He assumes that the relationship will continue, but it does not.
Then Younes mostly forgets the incident because by then he’s become pals with several young men, mostly the sons of Europeans who live in Río Salado, where Younes lives with his uncle and aunt who have raised him as their son. Younes’ pals are a privileged sort, from elite families, accustomed to an easy life. Though some of his friends have girlfriends, Younes does not.
Then one day Younes is introduced to Émilie and is instantly smitten by her beauty, as are all of his friends. As the narrator describes it, “Spring was gaining ground. The dew on the hills shimmered in the dawn light like a sea so inviting you wanted to strip off, dive in and swim until, exhausted, you found a shady tree where you cold lie and dream, one by one, of the things the good Lord had made. Every intoxicating morning was a miracle, every stolen moment a fragment of eternity. In the sunshine, Río Salado was a marvel. Everything the sunlight touched turned to dream; nowhere in the world had my soul ever found such peace.”
Suddenly, everything changes. Algeria is on the verge of a grisly prolonged war for independence that will destroy the camaraderie of Younes’ tight coterie of friends. Everyone will be forced to take sides. Are they Algerians/Muslims or French/Christians? But before the war becomes the major problem, Younes realizes that he is in love with Émilie, though one of his closest friends has spoken for her first. Émilie makes it clear to Younes that he is the young man she loves. Then the bombshell: the young woman is Madame Cazenave’s daughter. To make matters worse, the older woman confronts Younes and forbids him to be with Émilie, using as her trump card the judgment that any such relationship would be incest. And out of a sense of honor, Younes promises the older woman that nothing will ever happen between him and her daughter.
It’s the fatal error of his life, similar to another tragic relationship at the center of The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. The two novels share a number of similarities. Each focuses on the effects of thwarted passion, of bad decisions that young people make and for which they pay the rest of their lives. In Émilie’s case, she cannot understand why Younes abruptly stops seeing her. He never reveals what happened between him and her mother.
I have summarized this startling love story because it is only one aspect of Khadra’s extraordinary novel, which begins and ends in a completely different environment and context. At the beginning of the novel, Younes is ten, living with his biological parents on a farm in Algeria, where his father has rarely been able to eke out a living. One year, the wheat is finally plentiful and the boy’s father believes that his years of hard work will finally be rewarded. Then a fire destroys the entire harvest and Younes’ father, defeated, drags his family to Oran, where he has an older brother who is educated and a successful chemist/pharmacist. But Younes’ father is too proud; he will accept no assistance from his rich brother, until things become so grim for the family that finally Younes is given to the uncle to raise.
I am somewhat aghast at the lack of attention given to What the Day Owes the Night, which ought to be widely available and reviewed. I purchased a copy of the British edition of the novel in Johannesburg and when I checked the title back in the United States, I discovered that the book is only available in a Kindle edition, likely to be overlooked. Let’s hope not. If you admire good writing, I highly recommend What the Day Owes the Night. The translation from the French by Frank Wynne is gorgeous. The novel is filled with dazzling language and quotable passages. In spite of much of the harsh background to the story—especially Algeria’s brutal war for independence—this is a novel to savor, to relish, one imaginative scene and one memorable character after another.
What the Day Owes the Night
By Yasmina Khadra
Translated by Frank Wynne
William Heinemann, 392 pp., £12.99
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.