BEIRUT: One of the most endearing qualities about Aaliya, the 72-year-old narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s latest novel, is her dry sense of humor. She begins her tale with the memorable words, “You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn’t help my concentration.”
The action of “An Unnecessary Woman,” the Lebanese-American author’s fourth novel, takes place over the course of a few days, but the story encompasses a lifetime.
The best-selling author, who lives between Beirut and the U.S., has done an admirable job of creating a unique and utterly believable voice for his elderly protagonist. A bibliophile whose every paragraph is littered with references to philosophers, authors, poets and classical composers, Aaliya spurns the company of those around her in favor of her literary heroes, most of them long dead.
Through a series of flashbacks triggered by incidents in her solitary, housebound routine, the narrator gradually reveals her own history and reflects on a life spent in thrall to literature.
She recalls her childhood with an indifferent mother and a brood of favored half-siblings, her abortive marriage at 16 to an “impotent insect” (ended by the time she was 20), and her doomed friendship with Hannah, a permanently ravenous, red-haired romantic who builds her life around her love for a Lebanese Army lieutenant.
Aaliya worked in a rundown bookstore until it shut down after the Civil War. She has almost no contact with her family, nothing but memories of her only real friend and a polite but distant relationship with her neighbors, whose company she studiously avoids.
She also has a secret, one that fills her days and lends meaning to life.
Every Jan. 1, Aaliya sits down with a book and begins to translate it into Arabic. Reasoning that many Lebanese readers already have access to great works of literature written in English and French, she chooses books written in other languages.
Since she herself speaks only Arabic, English and French, Aaliya devises an unorthodox translation regime: Taking an English and French translation of the work, she combines them to create an Arabic-language translation of a translation. Once finished, she puts the manuscript in a box and hides it in the maid’s room.
“I’m committed to the process and not the final product,” she writes. “I know this sounds esoteric ... but it’s the act that inspires me, the work itself. Once the book is done, the wonder dissolves and the mystery is solved.”
By the time she dyes her hair blue, one late December evening, Aaliya has been secretly translating books for 50 years, producing 37 manuscripts. She has just finished W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” and is contemplating Roberto Bola?o’s 900-page novel “2666.”
“An Unnecessary Woman” meanders backward and forward in time, its narrator frequently wandering off on some tangential thought before returning to the “story.” This seemingly lackadaisical style may not suit those who enjoy fast-paced, plot-driven stories, but what makes Alameddine’s novel a triumph is the strength and consistency of his narrator’s voice.
Aaliya is intelligent, acerbic and funny, one of those rare characters who becomes more real to readers than the people around them, and will remain will them for a long time.
In some ways, she is a tragic figure, a lonely woman struggling to come to terms with her aging body and brilliant but underappreciated mind. Having cut herself off from those around her, she lives vicariously through her neighbors’ gossip. Hearing the morning conversations of the widowed “three witches” through her kitchen window, she rejoices and mourns with them in secret.
“I am no more than dust,” she reflects. “I had dreams, and they were not about ending up a speck.”
Aaliya’s cynical and entertaining voice prevents the book becoming maudlin, however. Addressing the reader in a conversational tone, her self-deprecating humor is endearing.
“Mine is a face that would have trouble launching a canoe,” she says, reflecting on her isolation and her belief that poetry is more fulfilling that love.
She peppers her reflections with jokes and asides, many of them literary. When her half-brother attempts to saddle her with the care of their 88-year-old mother, the old lady startles her daughter by emitting a piercing scream.
Even under duress, Aaliya resorts to humor.
“I wouldn’t wish her screaming on anyone,” she writes, “not Benjamin Netanyahu, not even Ian McEwan.”
Aaliya is infatuated with Fernando Pessoa and scathing of Ernest Hemingway. She translates Italo Calvino, Sadegh Hedayat, Bilge Karasu, Imre Kertész, Cees Nooteboom, José Saramago and Leo Tolstoy, among others, and reflects that she knows Lolita’s mother better than her own.
Though the novel is set almost entirely in Aaliya’s apartment, Alameddine crams in war, guns and a booklover turned torturer, love, loss and lots of literature.
It’s not easy to write a memorable sex scene, but Alameddine manages to do so, conjuring up Georges Bataille, Henry Miller and the Marquis de la Sade in an orgiastic burst of literary foreplay.
Along the way, the author weaves a detailed tapestry Lebanon’s history. Aaliya has a love-hate relationship with Beirut. She has never left the city for more than 10 days, defending her turf – the apartment left to her by her despised ex-husband – with vigor.
She weathers frequent incursions by her mother and numerous half-brothers, who insist she give them the spacious apartment for their large families and accept a spare room somewhere, in keeping with her single status. During the war years, she shares her bed with an AK-47.
Literature has allowed her to travel the world, and having made her comparisons, she accepts Beirut’s shortcomings.
“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,” she writes, “where you know that cars will stop at red lights and those traffic lights will not cease working a couple of times a day.
“When trains run on time (when trains run, period), when a dial tone sounds as soon as you pick up a receiver, does life become too predictable? With this essential reliability, are Germans bored? Does that explain ‘The Magic Mountain?’”
Recalling her mother’s suggestion that her red-haired friend lacks respectability because “her ancestors slept with Crusaders” leads to a memorable reflection on the city’s turbulent history.
“Beirut has survived for thousands and thousands of years by spreading her beautiful legs for every army within smelling distance,” Aaliya writes.
“Do you really think the whore was from Babylon?”
Aaliya’s voice reveals Alameddine’s love of language and allows the author to reflect on philosophy, literature and the nature of art without appearing self-indulgent.
Even the most wide-ranging of readers could find themselves lost in the sea of Aaliya and Alameddine’s knowledge of books, poetry and music.
This doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of “An Unnecessary Woman.” Readers will emerge from Aaliya’s world with a comprehensive set of suggestions for what to immerse themselves in next.
Rabih Alameddine’s “An Unnecessary Woman” is published by Grove Press, New York, and is available from select local bookshops.