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When people describe a book as a “reader’s novel,” they usually mean that a novel is “reader-friendly”–it’s accessible, features an engaging plot, and is written with relatively simple and straightforward prose. But Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press) sets forth a different definition of a “reader’s novel”: this is a novel for voracious readers of literary fiction and fiction in translation.
An Unnecessary Woman concerns an elderly Beiruti bibliophile, Aaliya, who, every year, translates a novel into Arabic and then puts it away, unpublished, in her spare bathroom. Her translations are a veritable who’s who of contemporary world literature: Claudio Magris, W.G. Sebald, Javiar Marias, Roberto Bolaño. But even beyond her work, literature has seeped into every part of her being. Aaliya continually references her favorite works, spinning out quotations like a walking Barlett’s, recalling the plots and characters that have shaped her life. Her narration is filled with allusions and references.
Though there’s no conventional plot—the narrative consists of Aaliya walking around Beirut—in many ways, the novel serves as a psychogeography of the city. As Aaliyah wanders the streets, the landscape triggers not only literary references, but historical ones, particularly of the Lebanese Civil War and the 1982 Siege of Beirut. But rather than dwell on the more didactic elements of history, she conjures a more personal, more engaging view of the situation, that of friends, lovers, and the books she read during the conflicts.
This take on Beirut isn’t surprising, considering the authors Aaliya takes on in her translation project. But perhaps the greatest influence on An Unnecessary Woman is that of Fernando Pessoa. Aaliya is a flâneur of Beirut, much in the way that Pessoa was a flâneur of Lisbon, and the novel’s structure is digressive and indirect, wandering through alleyways, both physical and mental.
In considering the Pessoa comparison further, it’s tempting to think of Aaliya as a heteronym for Alameddine himself. Aaliya, at times, critiques certain aspects of literature, only for the narrative to partake in those aspects. For instance, Aaliya considers, sardonically, sending letters to “writers, writing programs, and publishers” to ask for no more epiphanies. “Have pity on readers,” she says, “who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.” But the novel has its own epiphantic moments, when Aaliya reconciles somewhat with her family as well as with her upstairs neighbors. Aaliya, an otherwise astute observer of her own life, doesn’t recognize the irony of her earlier statement.
As well, Aaliya bemoans novels (“particularly those published in the Anglo world”) that insist on assigning psychological causality to their characters. But Aaliya herself cannot herself escape from wanting to understand why certain things occur. “I do understand the desire,” she says, “for I too wish to live in a rational world.” She understands, in other words, the disjunction between how life is lived and how life is read. In the end, neither Aaliya nor the novel embraces irrationality.
An Unnecessary Woman also offers an intriguing counterpoint to Alameddine’s fellow Lebanese contemporaries. Elias Khoury, for example, offers a much more direct engagement with the political situation, while Hanan al-Shaykh delivers gripping and complicated plots.
But what Alameddine offers here, most of all, is a window into the lives of Beiruti women. Not only that of Aaliya, but of the women who surround her: the other women in her family; Fadia, her upstairs landlord and her friends; Hannah, Aaliya’s best friend. Many of these, like Aaliya herself, have shaken off societal notions of what ‘womanhood’ means–wifehood, motherhood—and forged identities for themselves. Aaliya, literary devotee, may consider herself “unnecessary”–but the novel proves very necessary indeed.
An Unnecessary Woman
By Rabih Alameddine
Hardcover, 9780802122148, 304 pp.