[NOTE: This is an advance review. The book will be released in hardcover in February 2014, per Grove Atlantic.]
Lebanon’s history predates most recorded history — well before the Romans, the Arab Muslims, the Greeks, the Ottoman Empire, French, British, Israeli, Palestinian influences. The word “influences” is a rather lame descriptor for what these different cultures and regimes meant to this part of the world).
Beirut, the capital, continues to experience upheaval in recent times too, with the 15-year Lebanese Civil War and the ongoing troubles of many volatile neighbors such as Syria, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Cyprus. As a coastal country, Lebanon has also provided prime access to the Middle Eastern hinterland regions. Due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War spilling into Lebanon as well, the most recent violence, just three days ago, was the assassination of former Minister of Finance, Mohammad Chatah, along with seven others in a car bomb explosion in Downtown Beirut. And today, Saudi Arabia announced a grant of $3bn to the Lebanese Army so they can buy more arms and weapons from France to fight terrorism. An almost never-ceasing violent unrest and the related political instability has overshadowed the many, rich cultural legacies this beautiful country has to offer the world. For example, it has given us Khalil Gibran and his sublime poetry and the fine art of Moustafa Farroukh, to name just two cultural treasures.
It was with this context that I picked up Rabih Alameddine’s book, ‘An Unnecessary Woman‘. First, let me confess that I have not read any of his other works, although I have been wanting to get to ‘The Hakawati‘ for some time now. And, after reading this latest, I am definitely moving all of Alameddine’s books to the top of my To-read List.
This is the story of Aaliya Sobhi, a 70-something divorced, childless, single woman living in Beirut. And, while the first-person narration unfolds over a matter of 2-3 days in the present, we get the rest of her life story in flashbacks triggered either by present-day events or, in Proustian fashion, by various physical sensations or visual reminders.
For the past 50 years or so, Aaliya has been immersed in the solitary and rather secretive task of translating the novels of her favorite authors like Pessoa. Tolstoy, Hamsun et al (a tip: the choices of authors and works of literature are very telling in what they reveal of Aaliya, so pay close attention when you read). A complete recluse, her routine existence is occasionally disrupted by her half-brothers who want her to give up her larger apartment to one of them, and by the three women friends who live in that apartment building. But for the most part, she has kept to herself, considering herself to be unnecessary to the society that she has been a part of and yet rather ignored by, her entire life. And, while Alameddine does not give us any explicit descriptions of how Beiruti society and culture treats women like Aaliya, we get a very good understanding of this through both Aaliya’s recollections and the other characters in the story.
Aaliya’s selective memories are meaningful as they give us not just the changing world that she has inhabited throughout her life but also how the Lebanese Civil war and her personal history both have shaped her present existence. And, even more than that, they tell us how she views and reinvents herself based on her bad experiences. Recollection is, after all, often, reconstruction. I once heard Alameddine on an NPR interview, where he said:
We seem, particularly over here in the West, and in America in particular, to have forgotten that we are, in large measures, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Readers here may know that I subscribe to this belief too. And, through Aaliya’s recollections, we see how easy it is to construct socially-conforming narratives about our lives such that they become self-limiting barriers in our own thinking. This, more than anything, is what seems to have happened to her. Not that society is blameless, of course. But, often, we collude with our own misfortunes — as Aaliya does here with hers. Alameddine hints at this strongly when he weaves in the story of Aaliya’s one close friend — an older woman, Hannah, who, through her personal journals, writes and tries to re-write her own life. Despite that, she succumbs, eventually, to a deep misery. Then, through her own recollection/reconstruction of Hannah’s life, Aaliya reinforces certain aspects over others.
Aaliya’s chosen vocation of translating books from their translations rather than the original texts is telling too. I found myself wondering why, after fifty years of doing this work, she did not switch to either translating English or French authors (languages she knew) or even take it upon herself to learn another new language. Towards the end, when another woman questions Aaliya about this, she has no answer, not having entirely explored or understood this about herself. I’ll leave it there so other readers can draw their own conclusions (and so that I don’t spoil the story for them).
With some stories, such flights into past memories at the slightest provocation can get tiresome and even annoying. But here, each time Aaliya drifted, Alameddine’s tight prose and the distinctive and humorous voice he has given to his narrator made me willing to go along for the ride. Also, with some characters, such tangential reveries can feel like directionless rambling, but here the narrator’s careful exploration is rather methodical (which makes sense, given how she occupies her days with reading and writing). I wanted to find out more about her and I trusted that she would not lose herself (and, by consequence, me as the reader). Further, many of these memories are anecdotes about her favorite authors and musicians and, if you’re a bookish sort of person like me, you will enjoy these thoroughly. I highlighted many to return to. Alameddine also does a rather clever thing with how he connects some of these real-life anecdotes with Aaliya’s own life in her mind and her narrative so that, through those seemingly-random connections also we get to understand more dimensions of her.
Most of the other characters, who we see through Aaliya’s eyes, are, interestingly, women. The handful of male characters — father, step-father, half-brother, husband, a young friend — are either too faintly-sketched or stereotypical. The women, however, are given to us as various archetypes of the modern Lebanese woman today and her place in society — wife, mother, daughter, sister, lover, friend and teacher. All fairly strong-minded and non-traditional women, including Aaliya, though hers is a more quiet, enduring resilience.
Eventually, it takes two particular present-day events to shake Aaliya out of her dream-like ‘Groundhog Day’ world. The first is a family visit where her oldest half-brother tries to pawn their old and almost-senile mother off on her for looking after and the second is a disaster in the building. Without giving too much away, both of these events cause Aaliya to re-evaluate her existence ever so slightly, but meaningfully — particularly how literature has been both a succor for and a barrier from the jarring dissonance that is her ever-jolting world.
I liked very much that Alameddine did not give us a maudlin, sentimental old woman full of regrets and sadnesses or, worse, an impotent anger. Although, of course, any or all of those emotions would have been perfectly understandable. Aaliya, with her erudite musings on literature, art, music, and philosophy, has quite a deadpan or dry sort of humor, which is fun to read. In another interview, Alameddine explained why he likes to use humor in his stories:
I can’t imagine a novel on storytelling not being funny. Someday I might write a novel that isn’t funny, but it hasn’t happened so far. Some of my stories might rely on humor more than others but it’s always there. I tend to prefer a light touch when dealing with a serious subject, and tend to prefer those writers with a sense of humor. I grew up on Dostoyevsky, and I still think he’s amazing but a bit too earnest. Now, if he had Gogol’s lighter touch. . . . Humor tends to sharpen the blunt edges of earnestness.
Still, I must admit that the ending is rather a let-down. Her future is left open, uncertain, so I suppose that’s something. And I realize that it would have been too contrived to have a happy Hollywood ending. Still, there’s a sense of dissatisfaction that, after everything that Aaliya confides in us, the readers, and we invest in her so fully, the threads, in the end, are left hanging loose. Of course, Alameddine, through Aaliya, gives us plenty of clues throughout by warning us against Joycean epiphanies and how life really cannot be easily explained as fiction tends to be. Yet, isn’t that exactly one of the many reasons some of us read fiction? Still, I appreciate it is one of his main themes, as he described in this interview:
The door was always open, and she knew that it was. She chose to pass the threshold. Was that decision due to an epiphany? That would depend on how one looked at it….. one of the main themes is the persistence of personal narrative, or what I sometimes call the persistence of delusion.
And this is definitely more honest and real:
But then trying to figure out how to “crack” her isolation proved slippery, until I realized that what was needed were small but tectonic shifts, both internal and external. I love that you used the phrase “crack her isolation,” because I wasn’t that interested in anything more than that, and neither was she.
So, in the end, this is a very well-told story of a seemingly average woman who is remarkable for having survived and made her own little place in the world, regardless of whether she was made to feel necessary or not. And it makes you think about the pervasiveness of the belief system that says we must make our mark on the world, create a legacy, etc. Perhaps not. Perhaps, more than being “necessary” to anyone else, more than anything else, it is most important to figure out and commit to something larger than ourselves — as Aaliya did for fifty years without needing any validation in return. This is what I found to be most moving.
A few words on the title. The “Unnecessary” qualifier comes from a real-life story about Bruno Schulz, an artist and a writer, who is also one of Aaliya’s favorites in the story. During World War II, he was among the few Jews kept alive as “Necessary Jews” because they had certain skills that were useful to the Nazis. In Schulz’s case, he was required to paint a mural on the bedroom wall of a Nazi commander’s son. Alameddine explored the question of what it means to be a necessary or unnecessary human as he explained in this interview. His protagonist, Aaliya, also muses on what it means to be a necessary human as she tells us about Schulz’s life, death, and legacy.
Let’s end with a quote from this fine book. It is hard to pick just one as I’ve highlighted close to 150 passages in my Kindle edition. This bit is one of my favorites because it gives us Aaliya’s sharp voice and is also a slanted way for Alameddine to tell us what his own book is most definitely not:
Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany. I call these memoirs and confessional novels happy tragedies. We shall overcome and all that. I find them sentimental and boring. They are the modern versions of The Lives of the Saints, with exemplary tales of suffering preceding redemption, only less interesting because we no longer have lecherous Roman centurions lusting after sultry virgin martyrs, and smiting their perky, voluptuous, but eternally chaste breasts – less interesting because, instead of rising into lush Heaven and His embrace, all we get these days is a measly epiphany.
I feel short-changed, don’t you?
Blame Joyce and his Dubliners, which I adore, but do pity Mr Joyce, because the only thing some writers ever understand from his masterpiece is epiphany, epiphany, and one more blasted epiphany. There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.
Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear and concise as your stories.
I should send out letters to writers, writing programs, and publishers. You’re strangling the life out of literature, sentence by well-constructed sentence, book by bland book.
So if like Aaliya (and me), you don’t much care for the nice, clean, epiphany-driven endings in your favorite stories then Alameddine’s novel, with its unforgettable story about a woman who creates her own terms for existence, is the perfect antidote.