Wednesday, March 09, 2016

A Mote with Imagination

An Unnecessary WomanAn Unnecessary Woman 
by Rabih Alameddine

"Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life?  I remain a speck in the tumultuous universe that has little concern for me." (p 159)

Sometimes the voice of the narrator enchants the reader with her life and that of those around her. That is what happens in Rabih Alameddine's captivating novel. The narrator is a woman named Aaliya. She is a book-lover in her seventies who runs a book store and translates books. She is an obsessive translator of books, a vocation that was spurred by reading about a criminal, Raskolnikov, in a book, Crime and Punishment, that she remembered as "the first adult novel I read, or the first with a fully developed theme." (p 102) That memory is one that she shares in one of her many asides that in this case last for several pages and included a discussion of the translating abilities of Constance Garnett, the Edwardian woman who introduce the English-speaking public to the wonders of Russian literature.

This is a book made up of her asides which intersperse her story about a life lived in Beirut. Beirut becomes a character in the novel as she shares her love for the city. This love does not prevent her from warning the reader that, "Every Beiruti of a certain age has learned that on leaving for a walk you should never be too sure of returning home, not only because something might happen to you personally, but also because your home might cease to exist." (p 175) There are other characters who drift into and out of the story including her friends Fadia, Joumana, and Marie-Therese. Most important in several senses is Ahmad who enters her bookshop as a young boy and matures on the streets and in the battles of Beirut city.

The most interesting of her friends for this reader are her books. Anything and everything brings her back to her books. Nostalgia for the city of Beirut reminds her of the smell of jasmine floating in, the colors and patterns of sheets in the dark" which leads her to Proust:
"But then I feel nostalgia for the walks by Swann's Way, as well as by Guermantes Way, for how Charles Kinbote surprises John Shade while he's taking a bath, for how Anna Karenina sits in a train." (p 129) 
She tosses off one-liners with the gift of a literary charmer. You may have noticed how she added references to Nabokov and Tolstoy while waxing about Proust. These and other riffs on the life of reading through quotations and asides warm the heart of any reader and challenge him as well. Her favorite book is Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian and I could not think of a better choice.

She also loves music and Chopin becomes another character as his music wafts through her mind and life, especially when performed by the great Sviatoslav Richter. Yet she is mainly a homebody, "No matter where I've been or how long I've been away, my soul begins to tingle whenever I approach my apartment." This is a place that is no longer new and cold in the winter but it is warmed by the heart of Aaliya the book-loving translator. She says near the end of her story that "In order to live, I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe." (p 277) Nonetheless she is not "unnecessary" as the reader finds that laughter and tears and wonder are all part and parcel of the wonder of reading about her magical life.

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