Saturday, 24 March 2012

What the Day Owes the Night: Yasmina Khadra (Algeria)

'Darling, this is Younes. Yesterday he was my nephew, today he is our son'

Younes' life is changed forever when his poverty-stricken parents surrender him to the care of his more affluent uncle. Renamed Jonas, he grows up in a colourful colonial Algerian town, and forges a unique friendship with a group of boys, an enduring bond that nothing - not even the Algerian Revolt - will shake. He meets Emilie - a beautiful, beguiling girl who captures the hearts of all who see her - and an epic love story is set in motion.

Time and again Jonas is forced to to choose between two worlds: Algerian or European; past or present; love or loyalty, and finally decide if he will surrender to fate or take control of his own destiny at last.

This is a beauthifully written, highly descriptive book by an exceptionally talented author. Reading this book was like listening to a beautiful song, as the way in which the author writes is almost poetic, with a lyrical quality to the words, and the way that the story unfolds.

Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an officer in the Algerian Army. He adopted a female pseuodnym to avoid military censorship and despite the publication of at least four successful novels (to my extreme annoyance this being the only one to be converted to Kindle), only revealed his true identity a little over a decade ago. 

In an interview with the German radio station SWR1 in 2006, Khadra said “The West interprets the world as it likes. It develops certain theories that fit into its world outlook, but do not always represent the reality." He holds no bars in this book, telling the story of young Jonas and the birth of the nation of Algeria during its struggle for independence exactly no doubt as it was, at least for him.

It was for me, the human interest element that shone through, partcularly Jonas' romance with Emilie and the tragedy that follows. When we first meet Jonas, or Younes as he is then, he is a young Muslim boy, the son of a farmer, but he is forced to leave everything he knows behind when the harvest burns down and follow his family (parents and deaf, mute sister) to the city of Oran, where they end up living in little more than a shack. Life is hard and many tragedies ensue, his father works day and night to make a better life for his family so that they can move out of the shack, but his life savings are stolen by his would be business partner.

It is at this point that his father reluctantly agrees to allow him to live with his Uncle, a successful Pharmacist, and his French Christian wife, and that is when the real tragedy begins, for unable to deal with his grief, the father slips into alcoholism and eventually disappears, a loss that Jonas and his mother, whom he occasionally visits, never quite comes to terms with. Initially bullied at school, as an outsider, he eventaully forms a lasting friendship with three French boys who become his constant companions.

Jonas comes across in some ways as a bit of a vain character, filled with his own self pity as to what has happened to him, it is almost as if he is a bystander, allowing things to happen rather than fully participating in his own fate. There are of course reasons for this, for he is thrown into a difficult situation - torn between two words and constantly forced to choose, Algerian or European, past or present, love or loyalty. By the time he does choose it is almost too late.

His failure to choose leads to the loss of his first love, the beautiful and enigmatic Emilie, daughter of a wealthy French landowner. As a young man, Jonas has an ill advised encounter with Emilie's mother, his first sexual experience. It her intervention when she realises that Jonas has feelings for her daughter that leads him to crush the fledgling romance. By that time Emilie is involved with one of his three best friends, but it is obvious that the two have feelings for each other, which Jonas does his best to ignor. When the friend catches them talking in an intimate way, his relationship with his friend changes forever. Emilie eventually marries another of his three friends, begging Jonas to intervene on the eve of her wedding, as it he that she really loves, but he does not have the courage to do so, as he is torn by his duty towards her mother and the guilt that he feels.

All of this only serves to reinforce how difficult it must be for a Muslim or for that matter, any child of other faith, growing up in a world where the majority are a different faith, in this case, Christian. Coming to terms with the disparities between beliefs, loyaltties and prejudicies. A reccurent thread that runs throughout the book is the guilt that Jonas feels at his relatively comfortable upbringing while his fellow Muslims, including his own lost family, who by that point are fighting for independence, live in abject poverty, facing discrimination on a daily basis from the French occupiers. The treatment that one of his friends meets out to his Muslim servant is truly shocking, and Jonas never can quite bring himself to intervene, in the end though he does learn to help in his own way, when the servant enrolls in the resistance, and Jonas who has by now taken over his Uncle's business, keeps them in medical supplies.

Jonas' friends all of whom are French, and Emilie, her husband having been killed during an arson attack by the resistance, are forced to flee the country during the uprisings, and Jonas becomes almost a recluse, immersing himself in his work.

Despite his weaknesses, I found myself warming to the character of Jonas, for there is much of him that I can recognise in my own youth, where I too allowed life to pass me by, afraid of making choices, or perhaps more accurately the wrong choice. It was this fear that prevented me, and no doubt Jonas too, from making any choice at all.

Despite the sorrow within these pages, the book ends on a high note, with Jonas an old man, having visited his childhood friends in France, and made his peace with not only them, but his long lost love, and also himself. There is much that we can learn from this character and this book, and I shall be badgering both Amazon and his publisher to convert more of this wonderful authors books to the Kindle format, so that I can read them. I would definately give this book five stars.   

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