Rabih Alameddine, ” An Unnecessary Woman”

An Unnecessary WomanWhen I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved. (p.100)

Mine are translations of translations, which by definition means that they are less faithful to the original. (p.104)

I understood from the beginning what what I do isn’t publishable. There’s never been a market for it, and I doubt there ever will be. Literature in the Arab world, in and of itself, isn’t sought after. Literature in translation? Translation of a translation? Why bother? (p.107)

Rabih Alameddine’s novel, An Unnecessary Woman is primarily about translator Aaliya Saleh. She lives alone in her apartment in Beirut, quietly translating novels from English and French into Arabic, only for her pleasure. Once done, she puts the manuscript in to a crate, seals it and pastes the English and French editions on either side of the box, lest she forget the contents of the box. In this manner she has translated thirty-seven books over a period of fifty years. It is an eclectic collection of books, consisting of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Danilo Kis’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead, and W.G.Sebald’s Austerlitz and is contemplating whether to translate Roberto Bolano’s unfinished novel 2666 but is “nurturing doubts”. Divorced at a very young age, Aaliya continues to live in the apartment that her ex-husband and she had rented. It is mostly to the generosity of her landlady, Fadia, that Aaliya has been able to live peacefully, despite Aaliya’s mother and brothers clamouring for it. They are unable to understand why a single woman needs so much space to herself, little realising it is stocked with books.

The story of An Unnecessary Woman may revolve around Aaliya Saleh, but it seems to be equally about the women in her building — Fadia, Marie-Therese and Joumana; her mother; her niece, and Hannah — the woman who nearly became Aaliya’s sister-in-law, instead with the untimely death of her brother-in-law, Hannah became the daughter “their” mother-in-law never had! All these women come across as strong, colourful, lively, outspoken and determined women but remain “unnecessary women” to the people in their families, usually it is because these women do not seem to conform to rules set by society. In short, they are independent. At the same time, the plot of An Unnecessary Woman is a brilliant excuse to write an ode to literature. Rabih Alameddine does it well. Hence it is not surprising earlier this week, the novel was longlisted for the 2015 PEN Literary Awards in America.

Read it.

Rabih Alameddine An Unnecessary Woman Corsair Press, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 300. Rs. 399 ( Distributed in India by Hachette India) 

20 March 2015

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