June 27, 2016
Somehow I didn’t see it coming.
It’s right there in the title. An Unnecessary Woman. Unnecessary.
It’s in the title. The crisis. The epiphany as Aaliya, the title character, would say.
But somehow you don’t quite feel it coming. Or perhaps you deny the foreshadowing. Just like Aaliya.
When I picked up An Unnecessary Woman, I assumed it would be a rumination on womanhood– specifically on womanhood in Beirut, Lebanon where the story is set.
And in some ways it is.
It starts off meandering. I almost want to say slow, but slow has somehow earned itself a negative connotation in storytelling.
But it does start slow. The good kind of slow. The kind of slow that winds through Beirut’s alleys. Through Aaliya’s life. You have time to fall in love with her. You have time to meet the city and it’s past. You have time to poke around at the characters and find where you fit into the story.
You have time to fall in love, to have your heart ripped out and then to put it back together again.
But we’ll get there. First, back to womanhood.
It’s a surface-level but important theme throughout the novel. Aaliya is a woman. She’s an old woman. She’s a divorcee. She lives alone. Her relationship with her dying mother is strained and has been since before she can remember.
So there are questions of daughterhood. Of marriage. Of maternal instincts– or a lack thereof.
And then there is the beautiful theme of what it means to be a friend. Have you failed when you lose your best friend to suicide? When do you let the neighborhood hen pack into your life?
Of course Aaliya’s nationality is also essential in shaping her identity. She was in her middle age years when war broke out. The Lebanese Civil War split Beirut into two warring factions along one street for fifteen years. “Shedding its humanity and humans,” Aaliya notes.
As a single woman living alone– not just physically alone but emotionally as well–Aaliya had to protect herself. To protect her apartment she stayed with it rather than heading to the bomb shelter. To protect her heart from the trauma of the war and the recent death of her best friend, Hannah, she turns to her work.
And her work is translation. Since Hannah died, Aaliya chooses one book a year to translate into Arabic.
“Compared to the complexity of understanding grief, reading Foucault or Blanchot is like perusing a children’s picture book.” She says. I pulled out a pen and wrote “YES!” in the margins.
So she translates. It’s work. It keeps her busy. But it is also art. And this is an essential point because it brings us to the deeper themes of Rabih Alameddine’s novel.
In so many ways the entire novel, every passage, is a contemplative study in the meaning of art and — art’s twin — human existence.
“Does art matter?” That’s a major question posed constantly by Aaliya. She says things like:
“You think that art can save the world. I used to.
Why didn’t I train myself to be a better cook?
What was it all for? What good did it do to me?
What good is a personal skylight if I’m the only one who sees its light?
“Anyone who says the pen is mightier than the sword has never come face-to-face with a gun.”
But slowly, throughout the novel’s (and Aaliya’s) development, this question of “does art matter” becomes, “do I matter?”
“Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me.”
“Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo.
I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.
It is the most common text found on Roman graves.”
Aaliya, despite her cynicism about the growing number of “epiphanies” in modern literature, does indeed find answers to her questions the size of the world.
But to know them, you’ll have to read her story for yourself.