An Unnecessary Woman

Unnecessary Woman cover

Pros: writing

Cons: requires a lot of cultural capital to understand its many allusions

The title An Unnecessary Woman by Beiruti-San Franciscan writer Rabih Alameddine (born in 1959) raises the question of why its narrator, Aaliya Saleh is “unnecessary.” She was deemed expendable by the “impotent insect” to whom she was married at the age of 16 and divorced by at the age of 20. After he father died, her mother remarried and dotes on the sons by her second husband, leaving Aaliya to fend for herself. She says that her mother, her step-brothers and their wives view her as “my family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage.” She held onto the apartment from her brief and unsatisfactory marriage, something her family thinks she should surrender to them (or, at least, into which she should take her increasingly senile mother), and worked in a bookstore that was a vanity holding of its owner, leaving her free to pilfer the books she wanted and could not afford.

Now 72, some years after the troubles that often involved water and electricity being cut off and the danger of bombs and bullets, she is deciding what book to translate into Arabic next, wondering if she has the stamina to take on Robert Bolaño’s 2666.

Each year she begins a new translation — always a translation of a book not written in French or English (languages that any Lebanese who reads books knows), that is a translation of a translation, actually a translation of translations into English and French. She has already translated books by Bolaño, Borges, Calfino, Dosteovesky, Gogol, Hamsum, Kis, Kafka, Nooteboom,  Saramango, Schulz, Sebald, Tolstoi and others. Her project is not aimed at publication and royalties, and once completed, she adds the latest translation to the piles of previous ones.

There is more of life in and after troubled times in The Unnecessary Woman than in the hyper-literary metafictions of  Enrique Vila-Mata that I have been reading, though I am not convinced that The Unnecessary Woman is a necessary book (the second question the book’s title all but demands asking). I think that his first two books (Koolaids, Perv) are, but although this one borders on being delightful (more so for those familiar with the many allusions to writers),and is definitely smart, but it does not seem to me really necessary or life-changing. I liked it and can readily recommend it as a representation of female friendships, of Middle Eastern family structure and strictures, and of dedication to literature.

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