An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is the kind of novel that practices what it preaches, one where form matches function, and one where I felt ready to give up on it half way through when I couldn’t define a real plot line, but then began to see what Alameddine was up to with his protagonist. Aaliyah Saleh, 72, has lived alone in her Beirut apartment ever since her husband of 4 years left in her early twenties. She spent her career working, and educating herself, in a bookshop and retired when the shop closed. She translates a novel a year, using French and English versions to write an Arabic one, and yet she simply saves her work in a small back room of her apartment. We meet her when she is pondering her next translation, and her thoughts take us through the Lebanese Civil War, as well her more personal battles. By the end, it feels like we’ve not necessarily read a book with a clear plot, but instead got to know a woman and her city.
The most interesting part of this book for me the fact that while Aaliyah is virtually a recluse at this point of her life, she is also a brilliant literary theorist–and her theories were fascinating. Real literature, she asserts passionately and convincingly, exists to make palpable the mysteries of human existence, not explain them away. This is what Alameddine did with his work, and why I think this book wasn’t written with the standard narrative plot. I think this book is brilliant, though difficult to recommend unless you comfortable stepping into Aaliyah’s world–and if you are reading from a privileged, Western perspective, being made to feel a bit uncomfortable.
Because her world is so intricate and complex, and because it took me the entire length of the book to fully appreciate its purpose (the “rising action” occurs in last 15 pages or so), I thought the best way to end this post is to share some of Aaliyah’s ideas–her reflection on the literature she reads and the Lebanese Civil War is extraordinary. The irony of the title is not lost on the reader, because though she is a childless, unmarried, reclusive woman, her voice is also absolutely necessary in a reader’s growing understanding of human existence.
None of us know how to deal with the aleatory nature of pain. (98)
One reason we desire explanations is that they separate us and make us feel safe. (99)
There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. 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. (148)
No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed. (155)
To write is to know you are not home…It is that longing for a mystical homeland, not necessarily a physical one, that inspires art…I appreciate longing. (195-196)