I am taking part in the Write Tribe Reading Challenge and I have opted to read 24 books this year (though I am hoping to read more). There are 24 prompts given, and this book adheres to three of them:
1) A book that is a Translation
3) A book written by someone of a different nationality/color/ethnic group than you
21) A book made into a movie
I will be the first one to admit that I do not enjoy war books. They unsettle me for days on end. And then I reason that wars are a part of our legacy, it has made us what we are. I cannot just turn away from it all. Yes, wars have pain, suffering and loss, but they also have hope, love and courage. And these books show us all. So, taking courage in my hand, I read the English Patient. And I tell you, it was a beautiful book. I found a kind of ethereal beauty in suffering. Emboldened by my read, I picked up What the day owes the night by Yasmina Khadra.
Yasmina Khadra is the female pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian army officer who wanted to avoid submitting his manuscripts to the army for approval. The book was originally written in French “Ce que le jour doit à la nuit” and translated by Frank Wynne.
A debt-ridden farmer, Issa moves to a poor neighbourhood of Oran with is wife and two kids, Younes, a 9 year old son and Zahra, a 6 year old daughter. The dirty slum area of Jenane Jato is not for the faint-hearted. While the farmer goes at the break of dawn to search for work and comes home only once the moon is at its peak, young Younes comes across a strange medley of anti-social characters in the neighbourhood. From the orphaned Ouari who catches goldfinches in the scrublands to the war veteran peg-leg who molests young boys and Bliss, the landlord of the slum who later resorts to pimping.
Bad luck doesn’t leave Issa’s side and the obstinately proud farmer decides to give away his son to his brother, Mahi who is a chemist and lives in the affluent European quarter of Oran. The childless couple, Mahi and his French wife, Germaine accepts Younes as their own flesh and blood. Renamed Jonas, the boy gradually loses touch with his old life. Owing to an unfortunate incident involving his uncle, Mahi, the family moves to Rio Salado, a quaint little colonial town just 60 kms away from Oran, known for its vineyards, orange groves and happy boisterous inhabitants. In Rio Salado, Jonas forges a unique friendship with a group of boys that stands the test of time – World War II, love and break ups and the most frightening of them all – the Algerian war for freedom. He meets Emilie, a beautiful girl and falls in love with her, but destiny has something else written for him.
The book is about Younes’s journey from the slum to the countryside, from a young body to an adult, and from past to present and back, which builds his beliefs and reinforces them.
It is a book about a simple boy who is a hero in his own unassuming way. The book is divided into segments each marking an important milestone in Younes’ life. As you move from one segment into another, you feel the ominous change in the young boy’s life.
The first half of the book talks about the transformation of the young blue-eyed boy from Younes to Jonas, his coming to Rio Salado and finding life-long friendship. In the second half of the book, the story picks up pace. With the internal war as the backdrop, it touches on Jonas finding love, losing friends and his surprising stoicism in face of all odds.
Younes or Jonas is a very well-etched out character. The character is so relatable that it could be you, me or the boy next door. A Muslim bought up by a French catholic mother, Jonas has never paid much importance to religion or race. However, time and again, it is thrown in his face and his loyalty is questioned – whether it is by his own friends, the people of his race or the mother of his only true love, Emilie. A quiet loving person and a loyal friend, Jonas is misunderstood by the people he loves the most. A man of his word, he loses more into the bargain than he thought was possible owing to his silence. You can feel his dilemma when he fails to choose sides between the rebels and the France and you can feel his horror at the mindless violence. Your heart constantly reaches out to the young fellow who gives it all but asks for little in return except acceptance.
The author has a way with words especially when it comes to describing the human suffering. If you find the description of the underbelly of Oran beautiful, you will be moved upon reading the suffering from the aftermath of the war.
In Rio Salado, houses stood empty, shutters banging, windows dark, and great piles of clothes and chattels lay piled up in the street. …People rain about, confused, their eyes glazed, forsaken by their saints, their guardian angels. Madness, fear, grief, ruin, tragedy had but one face : it was theirs.
Families searched for each other in the crowds, children wept, old men slept on their suitcases, praying in their sleep that they might never wake.
It reminds me of this famous line from the poem Barbara by French Poet Jacques Prévert – “Oh Barbara, quelle connerie la guerre” (Oh Barbara, what madness is this war?).
Because be it any war, for right or for wrong – it is the humanity that comes out as the biggest loser each time.
Another thing that appealed to my romantic nerve is the way the author has talked about seasons without being lavish about them.
Winter tiptoed away one night.
The winter of 1960 was so harsh that even our prayers froze, we could almost hear them dropping from heaven and shattering on the hard ground.
If you have read and enjoyed Camus’ insights as an outsider, this book shows you the colonized Algeria of 70 years ago from within. Read this book to know the true meaning of love and friendship, and loyalty and promise.
Finishing a good book is like parting with an old friend. What the day owes the night is one such book.