‘An Unnecessary Woman’ by Rabih Alameddine
We like to believe that it is us who chose the books we read. If that is so, what draws us to certain books? The ones that we have never seen on bookstore shelves before, authors never heard of even in the most popular book review columns, how do they find their way to us? Among hundreds of others on the shelves, and within a few minutes, how do our eyes catch hold of those covers, our hands grab it as if our life depended on it and before we know, we are walking away with that satisfied smile in our eyes. Our soul sings, this is one of those. The kind you get lost in.
Five thirty in the morning, to catch a flight at fifteen minutes past six is not one of the best times to browse a book shelf. But then, the habit of a lifetime is hard to break. The choice was between this and Antonia Fraser’s ‘The Pleasures of Reading.’ Having met an interesting person from Lebanon a few months ago, the setting was a definite pull. However, it was the blurb that clinched it.
“Aaliya Saleh lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s ‘unnecessary appendage.’ Every year, she translates a new favorite work into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty seven books that she has translated over her lifetime has never been read or touched by anyone but her.”
Can there be a character more interesting than her? She is a creature of ritual as far as her translations are concerned. Every single translation of hers has started on a New Year’s Day. At seventy two, contemplating on the next work to be taken up, she is all alone. No friends to talk to, no family whom she feels close to, she has been staying in the same apartment since the day she was married, at sixteen. Four years later, her husband leaves her. Yet, remorse is not for her,
“I did not wait for the smell of him to dissipate on its own. I expunged it.”
Her friend gets her a job in a bookshop. The owner just wanted the prestige of owning a bookshop and she ruled the shop single handed till it closes down almost fifty years later. And that is how she built her own private collection – by ordering an extra copy here and there, not bothering to return a few borrowed ones and then laying claim to the ones that were left as the shop closed down. No regrets about that, either.
The story moves up and down between the present and past, the characters keep coming and going. The three witches who stay in the same building provide a constant background- Marie Therese and Joumana, both teaching at the American University and Fadia, her land lady. Her crazy mother and the elderly brother and his family is at a distance, though their ominous presence is felt throughout.
The story progresses through Aaliya’s thoughts on the books she has read. She has a literary reference for each character and every incident in her life. And that is exactly what makes this book such a pleasure to read. Talking about her impotent husband, she refers to Kant,
“In ‘The Science of Right,’ Kant wrote, ‘Marriage is the Union of two persons of different sexes for the purpose of lifelong mutual possession of each other’s sexual organs.’
Kant obviously hadn’t met my husband.”
On the changing faces of her city , she quotes from ‘Sepharad’ by Antonio Munoz Molina,’
“Only those of us who,have left the city know what the city used to be like and are aware of how much it has changed; it’s the people who stayed can’t remember, who seeing it day after day have been losing that memory, allowing it to be distorted, although they think they’re the ones that remained faithful, and that we, in a sense, are deserters.”
The profusion of quotes doesn’t mean the authors has no words of his own. The subtle sense of humor is so delightful. Again, on her city, Aaliya comments,
“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.”
Being a translator herself, even though a closet one, it is but natural that she lays bare her thoughts on the art of translation. One of the best books that she remembers reading is ‘Crime and Punishment,’ in French. She was so impressed by the book that she took up the English translation by Constance Garnett and was duly disappointed. Again, it is through another author that she speaks her mind,
“As Joseph Brodsky said, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.’
The author Hits the nail right on the head. Literal translations have no soul. The original need to be transformed and renewed to have any meaning and to speak to the reader.
The pace slows down a bit when Aaliya goes to see her mother. Was it the dearth of references or the pace of life of an old woman, I wonder. The catastrophe at the end and its aftermath brought the story back to life again.
Off late, I’ve been veering towards books from others languages. The insights these stories provide to the culture, be it Chile, Spain, China or Beirut attracts me no end. The pleasure is almost sinful when you compare it to the characters who seem to be shallow and their drab background that is either English or American.
The picture of a war torn area that we tend to have in our mind, especially in the Middle East is that of destitution and hopelessness. As we read, realization dawns that people and what makes them tick are more less the same. Women, especially. The antidote to anything that goes wrong – a visit to the spa, a new shade of nail polish, gossip over a cup of tea. And the sexual adventures are matter of fact. Of women. And we think theirs is the permissive society.
What charmed me the most are the women characters. Men are incidental. It is the ladies who rule . They do judge, but in a time of crisis, the sisterhood never lets you down. At every juncture in her life, good are bad, it is the women in her life that supports or tortures her. Their thoughts , the ones which only a woman could think of, are so well brought out that I was literally shocked to learn the author is a man. At last, here is one who understands a woman.
Verdict – Must read, if you love books and strong women characters
(Rabih Alameddine is a Lebanese-American painter and writer. He was born in Amman, Jordan to Lebanese Druze parents. He grew up in Kuwait and Lebanon, which he left at age 17 to live first in England and then in California.
– source , Wikipedia)