In Rabih Alameddine’s haunting new novel, an elderly, misanthropic translator toils away at a pointless job, Fran Hawthorne writes.
“Amid the proliferation of unsightly buildings, this crumbling Ottoman house with its triple arcade and red tile roof stands out as starkly as a woman in parliament … Encroached upon by bigger, taller, mightier armies, it is poor, infirm, weak, and despised, but, unlike Lear, it remains defiant, remains regal, probably till the end.”
Like this street scene, both the Beirut setting and the title character of An Unnecessary Woman, the haunting new novel by the best-selling Lebanese-American author Rabih Alameddine, evoke the image of wasted dreams.
The “unnecessary woman.” Aaliya Sohbi, is a divorced, childless, lonely and cranky 72-year-old intellectual, puttering around a threadbare flat. She is the ultimate outsider, with no place in either traditional Muslim culture or in Beirut’s glamorous, international social scene.
Even Aaliya’s vocation is basically pointless. She translates books that are never intended for publication. The manuscripts pile up in her flat, 37 books over the past 50 years, each in its own sealed box, filling the unused maid’s room and spare bathroom.
Not only that, but her translations are actually translations of translations, rather than translations from the original text, which is to say that they are alienated from their own roots. That is because of Aaliya’s own linguistic limitations and the strict rules she has set for herself. She will only translate into Arabic the pre-existing English and French translations of books first written in other languages. Her rigidly ordered, if empty, life is abruptly jolted when her “half brother the eldest” arrives at her flat with their senile mother and two suitcases, demanding that Aaliya allow the mother to move in with her. Aaliya refuses and, with the help of her landlady, Fadia, manages to push away the brother and mother. Nevertheless, the dual intrusions – by both the brother and Fadia – have literally forced open the door of Aaliya’s life.
For half a century, Aaliya supported herself by working at an “unnecessary” job that she loved, as a clerk in a bookstore that rarely had paying customers, until it finally closed down four years before this novel begins. With the loss of that job and the death of her sole friend, Hannah, Aaliya essentially walled herself off from humankind.
She doesn’t particularly care for computers, mirrors, herbal tea, children, multi-tasking, Iranians, Americans, Italians and Arabs in general. “Well,” she admits, “most of the time, I’m not fond of people.”
According to her strict system, Aaliya must start a new translation on New Year’s Day, seated at a big oak desk that she has salvaged from the bookstore, in the following sequence: “I place the new notepad, next to the pencils, next to the pens. I unscrew the primary pen, an old Parker, and inspect the ink.”
What does melt Aaliya’s heart are music, art and, most of all, books. This book is a paean to books, filled with references to and quotations from a rich range of great world literature, from Kant and Kafka, Nabokov and Conrad, Proulx and Welty, Rilke and Dostoevsky, Beckett and Flaubert, and especially the Portuguese poet and translator Fernando Pessoa. Aaliya analyses, argues with, compares, disdains and cherishes her authors and their books. As she says, “I know Lolita’s mother better than I do mine.”
In a book such as this one, focused on a misanthrope with a boring life, there is a risk that the book itself will be boring. Alameddine – author of the best-selling 2008 novel The Hakawati – escapes that danger in part through his beautiful writing, particularly in summoning up a Beirut where the memories of the 15-year civil war are ever-present.
Aaliya’s narrative voice – sharp, smart and often sardonic – also saves the book from bleakness. As she leans over to pull on her socks, with her ageing body perennially at the back of her mind, she notes wryly that she feels “every vertebra crack in order as if in a roll call: C1, here; C3, present; T4, yes; L5, I’m here; coccyx, ouch, ouch.”
Because of Aaliya’s devotion to literature, some critics have said that this novel is an homage to books. But the real homage is the ability to create characters with words that capture and draw in the reader. In that way, An Unnecessary Woman is indeed an homage to literature.
Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning, US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.