For most of my adult life, since I was twenty-two, I've begun a translation every January first. I do realize that this is a holiday and most choose to celebrate, most do not choose to work on New Year's Day. Once, as I was leafing through the folio of Beethoven's sonatas, I noticed that only the penultimate, the superb op. 110 in A-flat Major, was dated on the top right corner, as if the composer wanted us to know that he was busy working that Christmas Day in 1821. I too choose to keep busy during holidays.
Over these last fifty years I've translated fewer than forty books – thirty-seven, if I count correctly. Some books took longer than a year, others refused to be translated, and one or two bored me into submission – not the books themselves, but my translations of them. Books in and of themselves are rarely boring, except for memoirs of American presidents (No, No, Nixon) – well, memoirs of Americans in general. It's the "I live in the richest country in the world yet pity me because I grew up with flat feet and a malodorous vagina but I triumph in the end" syndrome. Tfeh! (pp. 11-12, iPad iBooks e-edition)
It should go without saying that there are many reasons for a reader to read particular books. A "good" book can have an exciting, memorable plot where each sentence ratchets up the tension until an explosive climax acts as a cathartic release. Or a wordsmith can craft a tale that is so exquisite in how each word "sounds" that one can get lost in a flood of sounds and images. Perhaps a character-driven book, even if its prose is only middling-to-good and its plot solid but unspectacular, can grab a reader's attention and not let go. Then there are those rare books where it is not so much the character or word usage or plot that makes the entire thing click. There is something about the subject or theme that transcends any perceived action taking place, something that speaks so directly to a reader's interests that she finds herself utterly entranced by what the book treats.
Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine's latest book, An Unnecessary Woman, is precisely one of those latter tales. There is no real apparent plot: a seventy-two year-old Lebanese woman, Aaliya, has for the past fifty years completed thirty-seven translations of books from European languages into Arabic and then has stored them away, not tempted to submit them for publication. It is a breezy, conversational sort of narrative, in which Aaliya mixes in observations from her life growing up in mid-20th century Lebanon with the books she has read and translated over the years. For those who expect a straightforward narrative in which Aaliya's life dovetails nicely into her translation work, An Unnecessary Woman seemingly confounds those expectations, as Alameddine uses this reflective, almost musing style to make strong observations about life in mid-20th century Lebanon. One excellent example is Aaliya's reflection on her divorce and her response to her mother's suggestion that she could remarry to a gentle widower or someone who has been repeatedly rejected:
Fortunate? For my mother, being a pathetic suitee was a cut above being a neglected second wife. She couldn't conceive of a world in which my husband didn't hold all the cards. In her world, husbands were omnipotent, never impotent. Mine thought of me as the cause of his humiliation and probably continued to blame his other wives. He couldn't risk having his women talk to one another. (p. 20)
Aaliya then goes on to quote Kant's The Science of Right before making a snide reference to the fact that like a host of philosophers before and after him, his philosophical views on marriage are belied by the fact that he never formed an intimate relationship or raised a family. This happens frequently in the course of the story, as the books Aaliya reads or translates are tied to events in her life, but not always in direct, narrative-forwarding fashions. One example of this is a story of an artistic cartographer who created a painting of Beirut as if it comprised the whole world, with longitudinal distortions in the north and south adding to the effect. As Aaliya recounts this event, she remarks that the streets of a camp, Sabra, were not as well-labeled as the other parts of the city:
"I tried," he said, "but everything worked against me. The streets were impermanent, transmogrifying at night into something else as if to trick me." The books behind the glass window were witnesses to what he said next: "The streets and alleys of Sabra multiply at night like rats – like rats, I tell you."
He had painted the Sabra camp a very light blue, like the Siberian tundra in some maps. The cartographer must have been loath to include the camp in his map. I considered giving him Bruno Schulz's book, which negotiates a similar situation. Schulz wrote: "On that map...the area of the Street of Crocodiles shone with the empty whiteness that usually marks polar regions or unexplored countries of which almost nothing is known."
Ah, Cinnamon Shops is still one of my favorite books. That map of Beirut still hangs on my bedroom wall.
Sabra? I haven't been back there. (p. 36)
Those who are familiar with the stories that Aaliya cites are going to see more and more parallels between the fictional and real than perhaps those who have to depend solely upon contextual clues. While in some cases, this can be disorienting if not downright frustrating for readers, Alameddine is a skilled enough storyteller that even when the reader is not fully cognizant of the allusions being made within these literary citations, she can sense something deeper than mere appreciation is taking place. It is tempting to claim that An Unnecessary Woman is about the application of literature toward a biography of one's life, but that would fall short of what Alameddine accomplishes here. Rather, An Unnecessary Woman incorporates these literary renderings into not a retelling of Aaliya's life, but rather as a supplement to it, a supplement that expands her life story (and that of the Lebanese) into something that is at once literal and metaphorical.
This is very tricky to accomplish and there are occasions where Aaliya the narrator and Aaliya the reader of books gets submerged within the narrative the other is telling through reflection and action. But on the whole, Alameddine switches almost effortlessly between these two facets of Aaliya's character and her stories of her life as a woman growing up in a rapidly-modernizing Lebanon before the 1970s-1980s civil war are reinforced by her sharp analysis of the books she has translated. As her story continues, the title takes on some interesting nuances: just how is Aaliya an "unnecessary" woman?
The answer to that, if a singular answer can be made, is almost equal parts based on what her life has become and as an ironic observation into what others have wished her to be. There is no easy choice here: the reader must ascertain for herself just how this pejorative can be applied or even if it is at its heart true. However one might ultimately view her, Aaliya's narration of life with her readings and translations is a captivating tale not because of memorable action or exciting characters, but because the application of what she has read to her life makes it appealing to those readers who seek more from a story than plot or characterization. For those fortunate few, An Unnecessary Woman will still in your craw for quite a long time.