Book Review: ‘An Unnecessary Women’ by Rabih Alameddine.


“No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed”

The prodigal finally returns. It has been ages since I posted on my blog (reasons which themselves may form a part of a future blogpost). Let me celebrate my return with a book review; Rabhih Aameddine’s “An Unnecessary Women” which I just finished reading.

The Unnecessary Women of the novel is Aaliya Sobhi, a 72-year-old resident of civil war ravaged Beirut who stays in her large apartment alone. Her working life is spent in a bookstore which the shop owner maintains not because of his commitment to either art or profit but because of the snob value associated with owning a book store, his passport to the world of the pseudo intellectuals and dilettante. Post retirement from the bookshop, Aaliya spends her time translating works of fiction into Arabic. At the beginning of each year she selects a book to translate (though for some unexplained reason she never translates French or English fiction despite enjoying these works greatly). Last year she translated WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and this year she contemplates translating Chilean Roberto Bolano’s mammoth 2666. She has so far translated 57 volumes but strangely they do not land up at any publishers’ desk. Instead they are neatly stacked in boxes to be stored in her unused maid’s room at the back of her apartment.

Like all other novels this novel too has other characters which just aid the flow of the (Aliya’s) story; Aaliya’s mother, who on the death of her father remarries, her greedy avaricious step brothers, her impotent husband (whom she is married at the age of 16 but with whom she develops no emotional bonding; she refers to him as ‘the impotent insect’) and who finally divorces her. Then there are her neighbors in the apartment, women without husbands, who meet every day for coffee and whom she scorns and calls the ‘witches’. There is Ahmed, the young boy who volunteers to help her in the book store so that he could just read and his transformation from a shy guy to a master torturer post Black September. Aaliya’s closest confidant is Hannah who imagines herself as being engaged to her husband’s brother, a young lieutenant whom she meets in a taxi. Her happiness is based on this delusion and it is the shattering of this delusion that finally destroys her.

Two other main characters in the novel stand out; one is literature and the other is Beirut. It is these two which keep Aaliya company. Aaliya lives amidst books; it Tolstoy, Conrad, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Borges, Chopin and their ink who crowd around her, keep her company and speak to her through their works. Beirut forms the backdrop of the novel, the war ravaged city coming alive in all its hues, hopes and despairs. It is the “Elizabeth Taylor of cities; insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart and forever drama-laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.”

Aaliya lives in her mind and it is the story of her reminiscences and memories, but they are not ‘her memories’ alone, expressed in ‘her’ words. Her reminiscences and memories express themselves through the prism of ‘philosophy’ and ‘art’. There are times when you feel despairingly nonplussed.  Aaliya thoughts are ‘written’ but are not ‘revealed’ for it is the Conrad, Faulkner and their ilk who oracularly ‘speak’ for and through her. A book of internal monologues here the ‘cast’ is the ‘plot’ and the ‘plot’ ‘cast’.   It is an intriguing piece of work; enigmatic and inscrutable which defies categorization.  It is a work that needs to be experienced. Go experience it. You will come out richer in the end.

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