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Book Review: An Unnecessary Woman

By (February 1, 2014) No Comment

An Unnecessary Womanan unnecessary woman cover

by Rabih Alameddine

Grove Press, 2014

 

Rabin Alameddine’s 2008 novel The Hakawati was such an enormous advance over the author’s two preceding books that the experience was almost disconcerting; in terms of narrative, characterization, pacing, description – in almost every way, it felt as though Alameddine had re-invented his own craft.

It was an extremely convincing performance, a family drama turning entirely on the power of storytelling, but such performances are always nerve-wracking; is it a fluke, or worse, is it the one aesthetic flowering the author was working toward his entire career, never to be equalled once finally achieved? Is it, in other words, all downhill from here?

Alameddine’s latest novel, An Unnecessary Woman thus comes as a great sigh of relief. It’s if anything smarter and more assured than The Hakawati and infinitely stranger. In fact, if it’s not the strangest novel of 2014, I’ll be amazed.

It’s the story Aaliya Saleh, an aging, childless, divorcee retired from decades working in a bookstore in Beirut, and she narrates her own story with acerbity, intelligence, and a complete lack of affect. She was, she tells us, “my family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage,” but she isn’t seeking pity. She had a short, miserable marriage, and her mother is slowly losing her mind, and her one and only truly intimate friend, Hannah, is dead, and the quiet marvel of Alameddine’s narrative is how it conveys the fact that Aaliya accepts all this without being happy about any of it. She’ll be thinking about one of these deep sorrows that have marked her life, and then she’ll drift into thinking about the latest book she’s reading and how it reminds her of a movie, or a piece of classical music – and the reminding never prompts any epiphanies. It’s just the unremunerative train of her thoughts. It takes you twenty or thirty pages before its stunning fidelity to real life sinks in.

Aaliyah has no especially high opinion of herself (when she speculates on her epitaph, she keeps coming back to “Here lies Aaliya, never fully alive, now dead, still alone, still fearful”), but throughout her adult life, in the midst of her city’s various social and political upheavals (which are duly enumerated throughout the story, mostly at quite a distance in the background), she’s maintained a secret passion: she translates books.

She doesn’t do it professionally; her work has never been published; not even her daily acquaintances know she does it. She’s always been a world-class voracious reader – her reminiscences throughout this novel positively bristle with authors, titles, remembered quotes and literary anecdotes – and she completes one translation every year, often from English-language editions that are themselves translations, an extra layer of derivation that’s naturally not lost on her. She savors every aspect of her annual ritual: the paper, the erasers, the room lighting, and especially the text itself. She prides herself on mixing up styles and types of writing, to keep her art fresh. Beckett, Coetzee, Camus, Robbe-Grillet, Sebald, Pessoa, even the Constance Garnett translations of Tolstoy – they and hundreds of others are her constant companions, and any one of them could be chosen as that year’s project. Alameddine does an absolutely infectious job of conveying how happy, how fulfilled this annual achievement makes Aaliyah, and yet she herself has no more illusions about her work than she has about anything:

I understood from the beginning that what I do isn’t publishable. There’s never been a market for it, and I doubt there ever will be. Literature in the Arab world, in and of itself, isn’t sought after. Literature in translation? Translation of a translation? Why bother?

(In her much younger years, she tells us, she was different; thinking back on those years and recalling the great work of Alameddine’s contemporary Daniel Mendelssohn in creating his generation’s definitive translation of Cavafy, she somewhat wistfully admits “Early on, I hoped that someday in the future an enthusiastic Mendelssohn would initiate an Aaliya revival” – but she knows it won’t ever happen.)

And so every year, with a little flourish, she finishes her translation, boxes it up (“I create and crate!”), and stores it on a shelf in her maid’s bathroom. Everything that happens to her in the course of this ambling, almost amorphous novel – the memories, the friends and acquaintances, the comings and going around the city, comes to the reader filtered through this intensely bookish perspective; anything Aaliyah does can remind her of some tidbit from Montaigne or Rilke or Doestoevsky (or her favorite book, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian), and just as in real life, the defense-mechanism aspect of this can be maddening – when she starts to open up about the details of Hannah’s death and then begins to wander off into some book-topic or other, we want to tell her to stop and get back to the main story. As with virtually every character in The Hakawati, Aaliyah comes across nothing at all like the kind of rarefied and utterly unbelievable people usually found in contemporary fiction. In fact, if she were confronted with the fey, two-plus-two-equals-periwinkle characters in, for instance, Andre Aciman’s Eight White Nights, she’d likely utter her signature snorting “Tfeh!

Yet she herself learns of the world outside Beirut largely through the medium of her books:

My books show me what it’s like to live in a reliable country where you flick on a switch and a bulb is guaranteed to shine and remain on, where you know that cars will stop at red lights and those traffic lights will not cease working a couple of times a day. How does it feel when a plumber shows up at the designated time, when he shows up at all? How does it feel to assume that when someone says she’ll do something by a certain date, she in fact does it?

“There are images that remain with me,” Aaliyah recalls, “I remember reading an essay – I believe it was by Nuruddin Farah, but I can’t be sure – where the writer says that all we remember from novels are scenes or, more precisely, images.” Alameddine’s readers will certainly find this to be true, not only because his free-form rumination of a novel has almost no action to latch onto, but mainly because it’s a book filled with strong visions, like Aaliyah inexpertly scissoring her hair off in the bathroom, or Aaliyah dealing with her angry mother, or – in the book’s single most memorable moment – Aaliyah watching two young boys sit down next to each other on the floor of a gallery in the National Museum and quietly start to cry together.

In a novel about a character who creates works of literature in secret and hides them in a bathroom, there are two Hollywood-style things you can confidently expect will happen at the end. Alameddine succumbs (he’s from Lebanon, not Mars) – he gives us one of the two, but even that heart-stopping scene is handled with a wonderful lack of fanfare. Our author knows that such things are beside the point in the novel he’s written; this is quintessentially the story of a reader’s life. If your own life is suffused with books, if books stand in stacks on furniture non-readers used for living people, if books are a big part of how you live in the world and understand it, then you are living in Aaliyah’s world, and she’s living in yours.

 

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