18 October 2014

Yasmina Khadra: Ce que le jour doit à la nuit | What the Day Owes the Night (2008)

The reader opens this book to find a short note on Yasmina Khadra which calls him the most read Francophone writer in the world, and says that he's been translated into thirty-seven languages. Ce que le jour doit à la nuit (translated into English literally as What the Day owes the Night) is probably his most famous book, and through Googling I note that the vast majority of readers seem to think it's a very good novel. However, Karim Sarroub (of whom more later) calls it 'un roman de gare', which can be translated as something like 'airport novel' or a 'beach read'. And I can understand the reasoning for this.

Ce que le jour doit à la nuit – at 450 pages and covering the years 1930 to 1962 in Algeria, plus a (then) present-day coda set in Provence – is epic in scale. Forgetting the coda, the book (narrated by Younes) is divided into three parts: 'Jenane Jato', 'Río Salado', and 'Émilie'.

Jenane Jato is the slum in Oran that Younes's family flee to after their farm is destroyed by fire. This first third of the novel struck me as a modern version of a nineteenth century novel, particularly of Dickens with its vivid descriptions of characters from the slum district.

And then Younes is handed over to his prosperous uncle (a chemist with a successful shop) and aunt, who adopt him and re-name him Jonas. From Oran Jonas moves with his new family to Río Salado, a much smaller town where Jonas's Arab identity becomes blurred (but never forgotten) as he mixes with the more wealthy Europeans.

The Émilie section takes up almost half the book, largely dealing with a doomed love affair: Jonas has had a secret, one-off dalliance with the much older Mme Cazenave, but then falls in love with her daughter Émilie, who is also in love with him. But Mme Cazenave forbids Jonas to touch Émilie.

One of the problems is that no one in the book really comes across as particularly engaging, even – in fact especially – Jonas, who seems incapable of making decisions. It's commendable that Jonas has strong principles: he doesn't tell his aunt and uncle that he father has become a drunkard; at school he refuses to reveal the name of his aggressor; and towards the end  he doesn't say anything about his (rather reluctant) involvement with the freedom fighters; but the reader doesn't identify with his problems, doesn't know what his beliefs are, or if indeed he has any.

Jonas just doesn't say much at all, especially to the woman he continues to love throughout the book. Even though Émilie pleads with him, he allows her to fulfil her mother's wishes and marry someone else, he won't say he loves her, and even when he tracks her down later after her husband dies during the war and Mme Cazenave is no longer a problem he won't open his mouth, he just cries. He's pathetic.

So all in all this is a pretty disappointing read.

But back to Karim Sarroub, who (very convincingly indeed) accuses Yasmina Khadra of plagiarism. In 'Ce que Yasmina Khadra doit à Youcef Dris', Sarroub draws attention to the Algerian writer Youcef Dris's (little known) book Les amants de Padovani, which is the true story of a cousin of Dris's. It was published in 2004 – four years before the publication of Yasmina Khadra's Ce que le jour doit à la nuit – and Sarroub finds twenty significant similarities in the story line of the two books. Even the hat and the poise of the head of the woman on the cover above is similar to a photograph in Dris's book, which shows Amélie and her friend in Aix-en-Provence, the Provençal town which is incidentally also the title of the final (present-day) section of Khadra's novel.

The article makes very interesting reading:

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Ce que Yasmina Khadra doit à Youcef Dris, by Karim Sarroub

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