Monday, 6 September 2010

Telling an Intimate Story That Is History Too: Yasmina Khadra's What the Day Owes the Night

The New York Times ended its lukewarm review of Yasmina Khadra's The Attack four years ago with this proviso: "if he is to instruct us at the deepest level, he cannot afford to leave so much of himself and the lessons of his country's history out of his fiction."

Since then the former Algerian military officer turned novelist has published two more novels, one which completes a trilogy about Islamic fundamentalists, called The Sirens of Baghdad. The second, What the Day Owes the Night, could be seen as his answer to the NY Times' criticism. It tells the story of a man from a wealthy Arab family who grows up in Oran and Rio Salado, a nearby village, during the 1930s and 1940s. He experiences the turmoil of the 1960s which saw Algeria become an independent country, and he loves deeply and despairingly a childhood friend from a French family who returns to France.

This is the book that won the Prix des Durochères last December, the "prize" given annually by a book group of friends to the best book they've read in the previous year. I had read part of it, been impressed, but not finished it because of a thousand other things demanding to be read. But I put it on the list of the book discussion group I lead at the Outremont library for September, so last week I began to read it again.

This is one good book! Khadra (who took a pseudonym originally to avoid Algerian army censorship) does that rare thing of bringing world-shaking events into a human scale. The reader will learn much about what happened in Northern Africa in the 20th century, but he or she will also be invited into the world of a man about whom one quickly cares a lot.

The only problem for North American English readers is that the book appears not available here. Published originally in French two years ago, it was published last May by the UK house William Heineman, but doesn't show up on any internet book seller in a North American edition. says it will be available in Kindle at some point, but it isn't now.

At any rate, keep your eyes open for it. It definitely is worth reading.

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