Rabih Alameddine's beautiful new novel is ostensibly about an elderly woman living alone in her Beirut apartment. Once married but quickly divorced, Aaliya appears to be, as the title says, "An Unnecessary Woman."
But Aaliya's solitude is filled with incident and wonder. She lives in a city whose very name is synonymous with conflict and disorder. In Beirut it's perfectly normal for a spinster to don a pink tracksuit and pick up an AK-47 in defense of her abode.
The wonder in "An Unnecessary Woman" comes courtesy of Aaliya's voracious reading habits. The imagined worlds of writers as diverse as W.G. Sebald, Marcel Proust and Roberto Bolaño are Aaliya's constant (and unfailingly interesting) companions. She translates their books into Arabic, filling up her home with three dozen translations — which no one else has ever read.
"I imagine looking at this room through a stranger's eyes," Aaliya says of her apartment. "Books everywhere, stacks and stacks, shelves and bookcases, stacks atop each shelf, I in the creaky chair… I have been its only occupant."
Alameddine is the Lebanese American author of four previous works of fiction (including the international bestseller "The Hakawati"). He is a resident of San Francisco and Beirut. The latter city and its violent recent history provide the setting for "An Unnecessary Woman," as Aaliya witnesses a series of battles between militias, an invasion by the Israeli army. She suffers the indignities of endless power outages and shutdowns of the city's water supply. Through it all, she reads.
After the battles are over, Aaliya keeps a war "relic" on her desk: a copy of Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities," its cover scorched in the lower right corner.
"I was reading the book by candlelight while people killed each other outside my window," Aaliya says. "I had an incendiary mishap, something that seems to have happened regularly to Joseph Conrad — the incendiary mishaps, not the burning cities."
Much of "An Unnecessary Woman" reads in this fashion, with Aaliya dialoguing with the lives and works of great writers while simultaneously recounting the events of her life, from girlhood to sunset years. Her reading varies from Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf to Javier Marias and Fernando Pessoa. Aaliya's taste in literature is so wonderfully varied, and Alameddine writes with such lucid and swift-moving prose, that his novel never loses momentum, even though Aaliya herself is the most passive of protagonists.
"An Unnecessary Woman" is an allegory about how notions of beauty and civilization can endure in a world that periodically descends into barbarism and how women can persevere in a society that never ceases to devalue them in both war and peace.
In Alameddine's telling, Beirut is a city caught between the pull of the cosmopolitan (it's famous as "the Paris of the Middle East") and persistent traditional Muslim notions of what women's roles should be. At an early age, Aaliya is married off to an older man. But he's useless, stupid and impotent, and their marriage is never consummated. After he mercifully divorces her, Aaliya is left with their spacious apartment, much to the chagrin of her own family, who thinks she should hand it over to one of her child-rearing siblings. She refuses, and her family hates her for it.
"I am my family's appendix, its unnecessary appendage," she says.
Besides her literary curiosity, Aaliya's stubbornness and independence are her defining characteristics. If there weren't bombs going off periodically, Aaliya might be, like her hero the Portuguese poet and critic Pessoa, a flâneur — an idle wanderer about town.
Pessoa's words in his autobiographical "The Book of Disquiet" define Aaliya's personal philosophy: "The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential."
Absorbing the creative spirit of the great writers she admires by translating them allows Aaliya to live alone without feeling like a tragic figure. She's a thinker, a lover of life and ideas. She works for years at a Beirut bookstore, where the owner is a dilettante who doesn't appreciate her vast knowledge of literature. When the bookstore closes, she gets to keep the desk she had there; for Aaliya, this is enough. She moves the desk to her apartment and uses it to sit and work on her never-to-be-read translations.
As Aaliya reads and periodically observes the aging of her family and neighbors, she cannot escape the pain of loss. Her most enduring friendship is with another unmarried woman, a doomed, kindred spirit. But not even the worst possible end to that friendship can strip Aaliya of the unique sense of belonging that books and reading give her. To read is to be alone — and also to be immersed deeply in the emotions and the ideas that make us human.
As Pessoa's alter ego, or "heteronym" Alvaro de Campos writes:
"I am nothing.
I'll always be nothing.
I can't even wish to be anything.
Aside from that, within me I have all the dreams of the world."
"An Unnecessary Woman" is an utterly unique love poem to the book and to the tenacity of the feminine spirit. And it's a triumph for Alameddine, who has created a book worthy of sitting on a shelf next to the great works whose beauty and power his novel celebrates.
An Unnecessary Woman
Grove Press: 320 pp., $25
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