Friday, April 25, 2014
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
An Unnecessary Woman is a departure from the others in that it features an older woman as its first-person narrator. It is through her eyes that we come to know other characters, and indeed, the city of Beirut itself.
Aaliya is 72, divorced, childless, and living alone in an apartment once shared with her husband. Now, her sole companions are the fictional ones in the books she has scattered in her apartment. She was once modestly employed as a bookseller, but when the bookstore closed, Aaliya was forced into retirement. Her main occupation now is that of a translator of literary fiction. She begins a new translation every January. Yet her translations are purely for herself; the manuscripts - all 37 of them - sit in boxes in her apartment, never to be published.
This is a contemplative book, its story composed of the inner reflections of the narrator. And like thoughts, the prose weaves between past and present. Beirut is as much a character as the other people who pass through Aaliya's life. War-torn Beirut. Bombs from without and from within.
Aaliya's life is one of deprivation from the time she was two years old. It was then that she lost the one person who loved her - her father. Her mother became almost hostile to her once she remarried and had sons. Later, Aaliya was married off to a man who never loved her and who was, in fact, impotent. When her husband divorced her and left behind their shared apartment, her family attempted to take it away from her.
But Aaliya is resilient. She is not likable but the reader has profound respect for her. She never sinks into self-pity. Quoting the author Javier Marias, Aaliya compares his writings with her fate:
In one of his essays, she recalls, Marias suggests that his work deals as much with what didn't happen as with what happened. In other words, most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we've made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we're also formed by the decisions we didn't make, by events that could have happened but didn't, or by our lack of choices, for that matter. (p. 22)
The title may get its name from the story of the artist and writer Bruno Schulz. Schulz was a Polish Jew whose erotic art was tinged with sado-masochism. When Schulz was relocated to the guetto, the Gestapo officer in charge of the Jewish labor force, Felix Landau, decided that Bruno was "a necessary Jew." He made this decision because he fancied himself a lover of art. Schulz lived for a time as Landau's personal painter, creating murals of fairy tales in his son's bedroom. He ultimately was shot by a rival Gestapo officer, Karl Gunther, in retaliation for the dentist Landau shot - "a necessary dentist, one presumes." (p. 183)
Alameddine's novel is filled with reflections such as this one. While not political, its narrator exposes the reader to the atrocities of war and the allure of extremism on youth. An Unnecessary Woman is a uniquely written novel that is rich in literary allusions from the greatest of writers - Dostoevsky, Calvino, Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Saramago, and Conrad.
If you are a lover of literature and enjoy books about the Mideast, An Unnecessary Woman offers a view from another perspective.
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