Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Lost with Translations Set in Beirut, 'An Unnecessary Woman' Champions a Misfit Who Relates to Books but Not People

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Lost with Translations Set in Beirut, 'An Unnecessary Woman' Champions a Misfit Who Relates to Books but Not People

Article excerpt

"AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN"

By Rabih Alameddine.

Grove Press ($25).

Beirut is a city that compels one to make metaphors. You've probably heard this one: It's the "Paris of the Middle East." Only after living in Beirut did the absurdity of that metaphor strike me, for the capital of Lebanon was unlike any other place.

Rabih Alameddine's latest novel, "An Unnecessary Woman," is set in postwar Beirut, and is narrated by Aaliya, one of fiction's most introverted, socially awkward, bookish characters.

At 72, Aaliya is an "unnecessary" woman; she's nobody's wife, mother or friend. Much of the novel consists of her unsentimental memories of the past and her musings on literature.

A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts and a native of Beirut, Mr. Alameddine is the author of "Perv," a collection of short stories, and two other novels, including the 2008 tour de force "The Hakawati," which means "the storyteller" in Arabic.

For 50 years, Aaliya has translated one work of literature into Arabic every year. These translations get packed into boxes and put into storage in an unused bathroom. These unread translations are a metaphor for Aaliya's isolation. For some reason, Aaliya limits herself to making translations of translations, doubly removing herself from the original text, and her own world.

"An Unnecessary Woman" champions the misfit. Aaliya is drawn to writers and characters who are alienated and dispossessed. She muses: "To write is to know you are not home. I stopped loving Odysseus as soon as he landed back in Ithaca." (Aaliya's musings are peppered with quotations from her favorite author, Fernando Pessoa, and many others. Aaliya's frame of reference is literature and philosophy; every event or person reminds her of something literary. I emerged from the book with a lengthy list of global literature to read.

Aaliya's disconnect is a difficult pill to swallow. Even though she can relate with empathy to literature, she finds no compulsion to care for her 90-year-old mother. …

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