By Rabih Alameddine
Grove Press, New York, 2013
This is simply one of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read. It breaks all the rules we students of writing have been taught. For example, never write a scene with a person alone in a room. A single childless, 72-year old woman in a room, to make the story even more unpalatable to modern tastes. In this book, much of the “action” occurs in the narrator’s head as she recalls her past and tries to justify her refusal to bring her aged mother into her home. That she has a home of her own at all is an achievement in Beirut, where Aaliya, the narrator, has lived all her life. In her society she is an “unnecessary woman” who has not procreated, who does not even have a job (she’s retired from working in a bookshop). She’s a woman with few friends and a terrible relationship with her birth family.
Not a promising set up, you might say.
The book is absolutely riveting.
Its imagery is amazing. Aaliya keeps an AK47 on her nightstand because Beirut has been at war through much of her adulthood. Beirut, she tells us “is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden.”
In her own way, isolated as she is, Aaliya shares these qualities.
In writing in the voice of the opposite gender, Alameddine set himself a considerable challenge, the more so because he tackles the subject of loneliness in older women. But in creating Aaliya, Alameddine succeeds brilliantly. Aaliya is intelligent, funny, perceptive, unsentimental, and self-deprecating. In inhabiting his fictional Aaliya, Alameddine shows us the ultimate gift of literature – insight into someone else’s mind.
The author plays on this is another way, too. Aaliya’s passion is the written word, and self-educated, she’s incredibly widely read, in English and French as well as her native Arabic. She’s set herself the task of translating the Western canon into Arabic. Sometimes, as in the case of Dostoyevsky, she takes two translations from the Russian, one in French and one in English, to produce a third translation in Arabic. This task symbolizes Aaliyah’s apartness from typical human relationships as she takes on the Other – that other way of thinking that learning a different language gives us. Translation can never be a perfect rendition of another’s thoughts, but a skilled translator can produce a work of art in its own right.
Aaliyah has never tried to publish these translations, and they sit in boxes in the maid’s bathroom in her musty apartment. “Why bother” she says. Aaliya leads us to believe that she thinks, therefore, that even her work is unnecessary. But it is not. It is the essential expression of ego. Not in the sense that she is egotistical. She is the opposite. But her creation is essential because it justifies her existence as a human being. She describes “the flow” this way: “During these moments I am no longer my usual self, yet I am wholeheartedly myself, body and spirit. During these moments I am healed of all wounds. I’ll be sitting at my desk and suddenly I don’t wish my life to be any different. I am where I need to be. My heart distends with delight. I feel sacred.”
In this paean to literature, Alameddine also alerts us to the danger of self-absorption. Aaliya has a family whom she could choose to embrace, and a group of three women who live in her apartment building, who are kind to her and who would, if she let them, be her friends. Toward the end of the novel we see Aaliya making a late start on actual human engagement. To the extent that she believes her choices in life were utterly constrained by her culture, this story could be a sad one. But Aaliya’s inner life is proof of the uncrushable human spirit.
Throughout the book are scattered poems, phrases, and philosophic quotes, which Aaliya uses to make a point. In the hands of some authors the constant allusions to works of other writers would be intimidating. But Aaliya just made me itch to read the books I hadn’t read, and to reread the ones I had.