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A Love-song to Beirut



An Unnecessary Woman by   Rabih Alameddine Text $29.99

Rabih Alamedddine is an acclaimed Arab-American writer who is new to me. However, novels about book lovers will always make this reviewer’s ears prick up. In doing so, I have discovered a new novelist to check out and a fascinating – if controversial – literary presence.

Let’s be clear: through his central character Aaliya, Alameddine lays out his political and global perspectives clearly. He has no room for political correctness. This may alienate some readers, and I suspect many Americans, in particular, may bristle at some of the comments made here in regards to Middle East politics. Persevere. For what emerges is a love-song to a city, war-torn, ravaged Beirut, in all her faded gorgeousness.

Aaliya is 72 and lives a life of quiet seclusion. Every year for the past 30 years, this retired bookseller translates a new novel into Arabic, starting on the 1 January. Last year it was Sebald’s Austerlitz. This year it will be Bolano’s 2666. Fluent in three languages, Aaliya’s very choosy about the translations she undertakes: nothing must have been previously translated into Arabic. If she can’t speak a language, she’ll use French and English translations as a basis for her own, which is how she tackles the Russians. After she completes the task, she carefully files the works in a drawer. The thought of publishing never seems to occur to her.

She was married off at 16, long divorced and her now-dead husband was impotent and never loved her. She has an uneasy relationship with her step-brothers, all eager to dislodge her from her spacious apartment and completely alienated from her dementing mother, who never had time for her. She has no friends: Hannah, the loved companion of her youth, has been dead for years. She listens to the conversations of the “witches”, the widows and divorcees in the apartments above her who meet for daily coffee and cake, but never seeks to join them, preferring her own company.

Instead, she lives among her writers and books, (“Literature is my sand-pit”) and through imaginary worlds she’s sustained through years of civil war and political unrest. Her books are a constant presence through which she lives, remembering snatches of poetry and spattered paragraphs of text. Proust, Saramago, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Malouf, Cavafy, Borges, Calvino, Faulkner , Pessoa– it’s an awesome, daunting and occasionally confidence-destroying list. As a French speaker of Eastern European extraction, I’ve read Yourcenar, Kertesz, and many others, but Aaliya’s huge grasp of Western and Eastern traditions is mind-boggling and can make you feel intellectually dim-witted.

Aaliya actively cultivates such feelings of inferiority. She’s an intellectual snob, who pushes human contact away, preferring the company of dead writers and old memories to the possibilities of the present. One part of Aaliya is immensely unlikeable. Her unguarded political comments, in particular, are sweeping, over-generalised, sometimes historically inaccurate. At the same time, she can be very endearing, acknowledging her own insignificance in the vast scheme of things.

Without a trace of vanity, given to wearing old clothes and cutting her own hair, she finally gives in to her neighbours’ pleading and shampoos her hair with “Bel Argent” for a distinguished blue-tinged rinse. But shortsightedly, she misreads the instructions and emerges with brilliant blue hair. That’s the opening of the novel, which lays the ground for the rich vein of humour and self-deprecation that run through it.

Yet the supporting characters never seem as fully realised as those in Aaliya’s head. Take Ahmad, a shy young boy who volunteers at her bookstore and then reinvents himself as a gun-toting Black September terrorist. Their passionate one night stand appears faintly ridiculous and completely unbelievable. Even Hannah, Aaliya’s dearest friend, seems sketchy and insubstantial compared to the fictional wealth in Aaliya’s head.

It’s Beirut which emerges as a fully-developed character here and Alameddine’s descriptions of the city are a hymn to a beloved, war-torn friend. Once-grand buildings are pockmarked with bullets, single women sleep with Kalashnikovs beside their pillows, everyone is exhausted. No wonder, for Aaliya, “My books show me what it is like to live in a reliable country where you flick on a switch and a bulb is guaranteed to shine and remain on.” Despite modernisation, the overwhelming impression of Beirut is one of flux, impermanence, lack of control. It’s literature, friendship and the artistic life that have any sense of permanence and which Alameddine celebrates in this witty, affecting, if frustrating, novel.