The author of What the Day Owes the Night is a former Algerian officer, who took on a female pseudonym to avoid submitting his manuscripts for approval by the army. Originally written in French, this English edition, published by Vintage Books in May 2011 was translated from French by Frank Wayne.
The plot is set in colonial and post independence Algeria, and, not surprising given the times, the theme are conservative. This is a story about the narrator’s youth; it is a love story, a war story, and is so persuasively written that it sounds autobiographical.
Younes, the narrator is nine years old when his family’s farm is destroyed by a fire. Along with the loss of their bounty harvest, the family loses all the land since Younes’ father, Issa, is not able to pay off the debtors. Issa sells whatever little is left, and sets off with the family hoping to make his fortune in the city. There, they settle in Jenane Jato, a slum very different from the main city of Oran. Younes narrates his first experience:
“There is nothing cruder than the inequalities of a city. Walk around a block and day becomes night, life becomes death. Even now years later, I still shudder whenever I remember the devastating experience.”
Younes’ father Issa, is a very proud man, and he is determined to work hard to restore the family’s fortune. But this is not to be as Younes narrates that “there are some days the seasons shun, days that fate and demons spun, days when our guardian angels desert us; when a man is left to his fate and is forever lost.” His father’s destiny is misery.
After a series of unsuccessful ventures, Younes is handed over to Issa’s older brother, a prosperous pharmacist. It is here that his fate turns around. He is renamed Jonas, and begins attending school in the hope that one day he would take his family out of their misery, his father’s pride permitting. Jonas’ adoptive family move to Rio Salado when there is unrest in Oran. He forges a unique friendship with four other boys, and the story now focuses on their adolescent escapades. Their friendship is, however, tested when they rival for the beautiful girl Emilie, who captures the hearts of all who see her. Here a love story is set in motion. Even though Emilie loves Jonas, he can’t reciprocate the feeling because of some adolescent adventure.
The group’s friendship is further threatened by the Algerian revolt for independence. Here Younes is forced to make difficult choices- his friends are European but he also sympathizes with the miserable poverty in which so many Algerians live. Any commitment to either side is betrayal. As the war rages on, there are moments of horror and moments of affection too. And years later, Younes as an old man tries to make sense of what happened, what was lost and what still remains. Younes is an interesting narrator, and despite his conflicting character, he is likeable but the reader gets frustrated at some of the poor decisions he makes.