Qui sommes-nous au juste?

This is my review of Ce que le jour doit à la nuit : Volume 1 by Yasmina Khadra.

When Younes is transported from dire poverty in the slums of 1930s colonial Algeria to live under the new name of Jonas with his prosperous uncle, good looks ease his path but do not save him from the snobbery of new acquaintances who will never forget he is an Arab. The story is strong on descriptions of native poverty, and also on Jonas's conflicted emotions and loyalties when civil war breaks out over the demand for Algerian independence. Jonas is continually drawn back to his old home, haunted by memories of relatives and neighbours. Under pressure, he feels impelled to speak out on behalf of the oppressed Arabs, he even begins to learn about the history of the struggle, but although you may be carried along by the expectation that he is about to take up arms against his former friends, this may not be in his passive and introspective nature.

Against the background of the deteriorating political and social situation, Khadra confronts Jonas with a moral dilemma which changes the course of his whole life. I sympathise with readers who are unconvinced by his behaviour – which is of course necessary to sustain the plot – and admit to finding him almost masochistic, wallowing in adverse situations.

The story seems long, often repetitive and over-reliant on coincidences. The passages describing carefree teenage years with friends are rather dull and stereotyped, although perhaps necessary as rose-tinted memories on which he can dwell in later life. The style of emotional passages is somewhat overblown. This suggests the likelihood of a rather sentimental film version, which I plan to avoid.

The text is cliché-ridden, a mixed blessing for a non-French reader: I noted many idioms, but it was time-consuming looking them up. Does Khadra use so many stock platitudes because he was taught English as a second language? Khadra is of course a man, who adopted the female pseudonym of `Yasmina' to avoid adverse repercussions whilst he was still employed by the Algerian army.

The novel fosters a greater appreciation of the term `Nostalgerie', coined to describe the tendency of 'pieds-noirs', exiled in France, to exaggerate the pleasures of life in pre-independence Algeria, refusing to face up to recent changes, rather like some of the characters at the end of this novel, although not Khadra himself.

Jonas reaches some telling conclusions about life, but these might have come better at the end. For me, the dramatic climax and appropriate ending is Chapter 17, which could have been revamped to come after Chapter 19, thus removing the Final Section 4, set in the early C21, which ties up loose ends, but drags the story on too long into the realms of sentimentality and leaving nothing to the imagination.

Much shorter, more tightly written and plotted, `Les Hirondelles de Kaboul' seems a considerably more profound and moving work, perhaps ironically in view of Khadra's Algerian origins.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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