Monday, December 4, 2017

'An Unnecessary Woman' by Rabih Alameddine

One of Beirut’s most celebrated voices, Rabih Alameddine follows his international bestseller, The Hakawati, with a heartrending novel that celebrates the singular life of an obsessive introvert, revealing Beirut’s beauties and horrors along the way.

Aaliya Sohbi lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, divorced, and childless, Aaliya is her family’s "unnecessary appendage.” Every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated have never been read—by anyone. 

In this breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, readers follow Aaliya’s digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut. Insightful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s volatile past. As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left.

A love letter to literature and its power to define who we are, the gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a nuanced rendering of a single woman's reclusive life in the Middle East.

I saw this book recommended by a couple of other readers on Instagram, and found it at one of my local libraries.

It's a stream of consciousness sort of novel. Aaliya is a Lebanese woman in her seventies who lives alone, and has never had any children. Her strong introvert nature guarantees that others don't really get to know her, let alone tap into her fertile inner world. Aaliya has a secret she's kept to herself for over fifty years. At the start of each year, she begins a huge project of translating a beloved classic or philosophy book into her own native language, Arabic.

At the end of each project, she boxes it and moves on with the next, because Aaliya believes that publication is an implausible dream. She has two very good reasons for thinking so.

a) There would surely never be enough demand for such translations to make them worth a publisher's while. In other words, there's no market for what she does.
b) She's only translating from former translations anyway, since her other languages are English and French. This makes her work one extra step removed from the originals which include Russian and German. So her philosophy is 'create and crate,' and the satisfaction it brings is her main spur for continuing year after year. 'Through no effort of my own, I'm visited by bliss.'

She also says, 'I'll be sitting at my desk and suddenly I don't wish my life to be any different. I am where I need to be. My heart distends with delight. I feel sacred.' Is this a good enough reason to plod on with something that is totally unknown to others? I think so. Does it give us permission to persevere with quiet occupations of our own for the same reason? Sure, why not!

An Unnecessary WomanThroughout the book, Aaliya name drops for the best of reasons. It's never in an artificial way to let others know how learned she is, since she rarely speaks to her neighbours. Her musing about the works of great authors is always internal, and she never sets out to impress anyone. Even though she carries the hidden burden of being worthless and superfluous, the authors' words bring her comfort and joy. Her life really shows that one of the best perks about being a bookworm is being able to take on great thoughts and ideas and make them our own, a bit like hydrangea petals taking on blue dye.

It's an eye-opener too. I consider myself to be fairly well read, but I'd never heard of several of the wise sages she mentions. From a quick look at Goodreads, it would appear I share this with many other reviewers, and even characters in the book. (Slight spoiler here, I'm thinking of her neighbour Joumana picking up 'Anna Karenina' and saying, 'Thank goodness I've heard of this one.') But it's evident from the influence which some fairly obscure writers have on Aaliya that you don't have to be well known to be meaningful.

Take this example from one of her philosopher heroes, Fernando Pessoa. 'The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognises as useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.' Hmm, I might look up more of this guy.

There's such a lot to delve into which I haven't even mentioned, such as history, living in Beirut, war and family dynamics. The story is both simple and complex, one and the same. An interesting side plot is the plight of Hannah, the only friend Aaliya ever truly bonded with. Her story from the past gets us thinking about the nature of self-delusion and fool's paradise, and whether the real truth should make any difference, if you are living a happy life. Very interesting stuff.

Overall, I love the theme of Aaliya's life, that to be meaningful isn't synonymous with being influential. I do understand why we make that assumption. Our reasoning probably goes something like this. If we're here to help others, then we're surely fulfilling our purpose best when we are an actual benefit to them, and when people are talking about us, which won't happen if we stick our work in boxes. But this story encourages us to broaden our definition of meaningful. I followed Aaliya's own example of looking to others and flicked back to Victor Frankl, who's an expert on the subject if anyone is. He declared that we derive meaning from a) our love, b) our work, and c) our suffering. Aaliya's passion for her translations ticks all these boxes, and nowhere does Frankl say that others have to buy into the discoveries we make.

Aaliya is a living epiphany, although she paradoxically hates epiphanies. To her mind, they are sentimental and boring. 'Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn't as clear and concise as your stories.' So even though she comes across a bit cantankerous and cynical at times, she has become one of my personal heroines and role models. From now on when I'm working at my own computer, I'll remember Aaliya, sitting in her spartan apartment, hard at work on her translations. Her non-impact is very impacting to me. Whoever would have thought personal satisfaction could be enough in our day and age to justify the good work we choose to do, but perhaps it really is.


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