A few weeks ago a very good friend of mine sent me a super-excited e-mail about a book she’d just finished reading. She said that the main protagonist reminded her so much of me, and that it was the type of book I’d absolutely love. I was so intrigued that I immediately dropped the book I was reading at the time, and ordered this one.
Well, she was right. So much so, in fact, that I have to think of a way of thanking her for this precious hint: I’m so overjoyed and grateful for the existence of such a book that I want to stand up on my rooftop and shout for everyone to read it. But then, of course, I realize that many people would probably find it boring because nothing much happens in it – just a lonely old woman reminiscing and brooding on her life, punctuated by lots of quotes from poems and novels. Unless you’re a bibliophile and/or bookworm and/or book translator and/or polyglot, you might not enjoy this book.
The book is “An Unnecessary Woman,” written by Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese-American engineer turned painter and writer. And the titular unnecessary woman is Aaliya, a 72 year-old obsessed with books who lives alone in her apartment in Beirut. Hers is a life of conscious, concerted detachment: she has devoted it to putting distance between herself and her family, her ex-husband, her neighbors, her society, and her country. The means through which she accomplished this was literature, her only true religion in an existence otherwise completely indifferent to God. She has worked her entire adult life in a bookstore, and the remainder of her free time has been spent reading and translating books into Arabic – translations that have never seen the light of day because she stows each one away upon completion. “I create and crate,” she comments drily.
“Crates, crates, boxes, and crates. The translated manuscripts have the two books, French and English, affixed to the side of the box for identification. Tolstoy, Gogol, and Hamsun; Calvino, Borges, Schulz, Nádas, Nooteboom; Kiš, Karasu, and Kafka; books of memory, disquiet, but not of laughter and forgetting. Years of books, books of years. A waste of time, a waste of a life.”
Now, at 72, she begins to take stock of her personal history and to question the purpose of her existence. For all her attempts to be “Aaliya the above, the separate,” to elevate herself above human stupidity and into the pantheon of literary heroes that she worships, she discovers she’s not so much different from the others. There are chinks in her armor: a sudden onset of tears during a visit to the museum, a betrayal of interest in the welfare of her neighbors, anxiety about her estranged mother’s failing mental health.
Beside her reveries on life and literature, the book is peppered with Aaliya’s dry, witty commentary on Lebanese society, culture, and politics. Her criticism of religion-fuelled wars is particularly on point:
“One’s first response is that these Beirutis must be savagely insane to murder each other for such trivial divergences. Don’t judge us too harshly. At the heart of most antagonisms are irreconcilable similarities. Hundred-year wars were fought over whether Jesus was human in divine form or divine in human form. Belief is murderous.“
As she reviews her past, we find out that her careful detachment from the outside world was triggered by a succession of losses – first her father’s death when she was a young girl, then the arranged marriage at 16 to an impotent man who couldn’t even begin to understand her, the subsequent divorce from him at age 20, the suicide of her best friend, the desertion of her young bookstore assistant who was the only man with whom she appears to have made a connection, the treatment she received at the hands of her half-brothers, and finally, not one but three separate decades of armed conflict in Lebanon.
“After Hannah died, life became incomprehensible – well, more incomprehensible than usual. … Life was crazy. … My mother harped about my apartment. My half brothers tried to break my door and my spirit. It was not pleasant, and then war, the ultimate distraction, broke out. I plunged into my books. I was a voracious reader, but after Hannah’s death I grew insatiable. Books became my milk and honey. I made myself feel better by reciting jejune statements like “Books are the air that I breathe,” or, worse, “Life is meaningless without literature,” all in a weak attempt to avoid the fact that I found the world inexplicable and impenetrable. Compared to the complexity of understanding grief, reading Foucault or Blanchot is like perusing a children’s picture book.“
As her memories and narrative converge in the present time, things come to a head when her apartment is suddenly flooded one morning by her upstairs neighbor’s broken pipe. The event is cataclysmic for her psyche and prises Aaliya out of her carefully constructed shell, as she faces what she deems to be utter defeat of her life’s one and only endeavor: all her stored crates of translations are destroyed by the water – a lifetime of work gone in a matter of hours. In this bleak moment, the most heart-warming episode starts to unfold.
Aaliya’s three gossipy neighbors, the “witches” as she calls them, come to the rescue and begin attempting to salvage the stashes of paper from the crates, thereby also getting their first glimpse into their reclusive neighbor’s life. Aaliya tries to convince them that saving her papers is a futile effort because nobody would want to read her translations, and nobody cares about books anymore. However, she ends up being gently persuaded by the three women that her work has been worthwhile, and that they’d be the first ones who’d want to read it, not the least because she’d translated many authors who are not widely known outside of the classics taught in schools (names such as Pessoa, Kiš, Cortázar, Nooteboom). They also encourage her to adopt a different method/approach to her translations that would actually give her more freedom to tackle even those authors that she’d previously avoided.
Thus her neighbors, previously seen through the prism of Aaliya’s critical and ironic eye, turn out to be her saviors: they infuse meaning back into her existence by validating her efforts, and in a way they also restore some of her faith in humanity through their act of sheer kindness and selflessness. The book closes with a hopeful Aaliya getting excited about her next translation project.
Now, what does an anti-social, embattled and embittered 72-year-old woman have to do with me? Why would I identify with her? And why would a friend recognize me in the pages of this book?
Well, let’s just say that Aaliya’s life could’ve very easily been my life, too – if things had taken a slightly different turn on a few occasions in the past ten years. There were a couple periods in my life when I was in all seriousness ready to withdraw from society to a monastic-like existence devoted solely to books. Like Aaliya, I considered myself alone, godless, parentless, and loveless, and books and music were my only solace. And M., who recommended “The Unnecessary Woman,” was my closest friend at the time I was going through one of my roughest periods. She’s also one of only two people in my life that I can talk to about books because she’s as obsessed with them as I am, so she definitely knew what she was doing when she told me about this book.
Also, some of Aaliya’s favorite authors and poets happen to be my favorites, too. “I am in large measure a Pessoan,” she says, quoting him every few pages. If you’ve read my post on Lisbon, you will know that I, too, am in large measure a Pessoan, so Aaliya and I understand each other perfectly. But there are also Pavese, Brodsky, Spinoza, Saramago, Kiš. She has a penchant, as I’ve mentioned, for the lesser known, almost obscure writers, not just for the Tolstoys and Flauberts of literature. My heart skipped with joy every time she mentioned someone from my own pantheon. She also dropped a few names I was unfamiliar with, thus compelling me to go seek them out. Enter the domain of the nerds.
I can’t remember the last time I read a book with such intense pleasure. It must have been some ten years ago, probably Brodsky’s “Watermark” or Henry James’s “The Golden Bowl.” (Curiously, James is one of the bigger names missing from Aaliya’s reading list.) So I would recommend it heartily to anyone who loves books and reading as the ultimate escape from reality.
Thank you, Mr. Alameddine, for this wonderful book. And thank you, M., for being such a good friend.