Scaling back from the epic scope of “The Hakawati,” his 2008 feast of storytelling, Rabih Alameddine confines himself to a single perspective in his new novel. Yet, in its way, “An Unnecessary Woman” is just as epic as its predecessor. Alameddine’s erudite narrator, Aaliya Saleh, enfolds her personal story within the 20th-century history of her beloved Beirut, battered by decades of war. She sings the glories of literature and scorns the stupidities of human beings. She critiques the sexism of Arab society and is no less scathing about the smug ignorance of Americans. “Israelis,” she announces, “are Jews who have misplaced their sense of humor.” Aaliya doesn’t let herself off the hook, either. “I used to think art would make me a better human being,” she admits, “but I also thought it would make me better than you.”
Aaliya is 72 years old. She has survived an arranged marriage at 16, divorce at 20, and years of harassment by her half-brothers, who believe they have a greater right than she does to the Beirut apartment her husband abandoned. She clings to it as her refuge, a place where she hides with her books. Over the past 50 years, while working at a bookstore, she has translated 37 works into Arabic: “Anna Karenina” was among her first; W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” is her most recent. She has never tried to publish them; crates containing her completed manuscripts cram her maid’s room and overflow into the bathroom. “I create and crate,” she says wryly. “It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble.”
The world outside has handed her a succession of losses. She’s been estranged for years from her mother, who “loves her sons only and never cares to be discreet about it.” Her best friend committed suicide in 1972. A teenage refugee she befriended in 1967 was radicalized in the ’70s and expelled from Beirut with thousands of other Palestinians in 1982.
That was hardly halfway through the civil war that ravaged Beirut until the end of the decade. Aaliya read Calvino by candlelight “while people killed each other outside my window.” She acquired an AK-47 to protect her apartment, stepped over dead bodies in the street. The only thing that disturbed her more? The publisher who offered her a paid job translating “Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth.”
Literature is Aaliya’s religion, and much of the wonderful humor in “An Unnecessary Woman” comes from her pithy contempt for those who fail to live up to its sacred precepts. “Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany,” she sneers. The writers she worships know that life provides no such easy resolutions. Readers with less elevated tastes may feel intimidated by Aaliya’s catalogue of heroes (Kafka and Gogol are among the more accessible), but her zest for them has no whiff of pretension, and her confiding tone draws us in. Real literature, she asserts passionately and convincingly, exists to make palpable the mysteries of human existence, not explain them away.
While she agonizes over what her next project should be, we sense that Aaliya is not quite as content as she claims to be with a life exclusively devoted to art. Her marvelous descriptions of Beirut, where a circuitous old street “wiggles its hips quite a bit,” contain a note of wistfulness over the way she stands apart from the crowd. She always seems to be eavesdropping on the three women whose daily coffee klatsch, on the landing above her apartment, she never joins.
A family confrontation and an apartment-building disaster move Aaliya toward re-forging human connections. Yet her interior journey is all the plot this novel really needs. It throbs with energy because her memories are so vivid and her voice so vital. Her inventive way with words gives unfailing pleasure, no matter how dark the events she describes, how painful the emotions she reveals.
Alameddine has given us a marvelously cranky heroine, gruffly vulnerable and engagingly self-mocking. Aaliya deserves the qualified happy ending she achieves in the lovely, funny closing pages, simultaneously alive with her love for literature and rueful awareness of the world’s ever-lurking catastrophes.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: the Group Theatre and America.”
An Unnecessary Woman
By Rabih Alameddine
Grove. 291 pp. $25