Tuesday, September 06, 2016

An Unnecessary Woman (by Rabih Alameddine)

I read this for the Read Harder Challenge category "book set in Middle East." This was a tricky category considering I did not feel like reading about terrorism and war, and a lot of Middle East-set books cover those topics. However, someone in the Goodreads group recommended this one, set in Beirut in the (roughly) present-day.

It's the narrative of a 72-yeard-old woman who translates literature into Arabic -- but she translates only translations in French and English. So for example rather than translating Tolstoy directly, she translates Constance Garnett's translation of Tolstoy. This is a quiet character study that takes place all in one day, like Mrs Dalloway (which of course is referenced).  It's not about what "happens" so much as it is what Aaliyah, our main character, is thinking: about literature, about her life, about whether she -- a reclusive widow -- is in fact "unnecessary."

About halfway through I wrote a note: "This novel is an erudite character study about the culmination of a life of reading." That held through to the end. The shoutouts to literature are like wonderful little gifts -- mentions of everything from Pale Fire to The Ashley Book of Knots, from James Joyce to Proust. But they are often subverted.  I highlighted so many quotes but here is just one. (Also: read this book. It's wonderful.)

If you think that Marcello of The Conformist becomes a porcine fascist because he killed lizards when he was a boy, then you assure yourself that you can never be so. If you think Madame Bovary commits adultery because she’s trying to escape the banality of Pleistocene morals, then her betrayals are not yours. If you read about hunger in Ethiopia or violence in Kazakhstan, it isn’t about you.

We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you’re the one person who wouldn’t have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you.

When 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.

I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.

I am you.

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