Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading to live (Books - An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine)

If you love books, have perhaps wished to live in the world of the books you read, as I have, Aaliya Saleh, the 72-year-old protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press, 2013) will be utterly recognizable to you.  Rabih Alameddine's straightforward prose illuminates the paradox of an intelligent Lebanese woman who is acutely self aware but whose sarcasm cushions her from knowing herself deeply. 
First, you should know this about me: I have but one mirror in my home, a smudged one at that.  I'm a conscientious cleaner, you might even say compulsive - the sink is immaculately white, its bronze faucets sparkle - but I rarely remember to wipe the mirror clean.  I don't think we need to consult Freud or one of his many minions to know that there's an issue here. 
Aaliya celebrates language and narrative, she is deeply steeped in the Western canon of literature, quoting Spinoza and Heiddeger, Pessoa, Dostoyevski and Tolstoi, Sebald and Zizek, but she has replaced human intimacy with relationships to the characters and text in her beloved books.  She is relationally crippled.
I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word.  Literature is my sandbox.  In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time.  It is the world outside the box that gives me trouble.  I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books. Transmuting this sandy metaphor, if literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass - an hourglass that drains grain by grain.  Literature gives me life, and life kills me.
It is not accidental that the key metaphors here is childlike.  Aaliya, for all her literary sophisticatedness (she translates the books she loves most into Arabic) really hasn't grown up. Alameddine, a gay writer who has roots in the Middle East but was educated in the West and spends part of his time in San Francisco, renders the experience in narrative form of a modern Arab woman who is both literate and unmarried. I found this juxtaposition effective in another translation - making what I assumed was a foreign perspective to me immediate and recognizable.

His narrative functions on multiple levels.  One is an appreciation of writing from the pleasure of the printed symbol to his infusing his observations of person and place with literary references.  Beirut street cleaners are "the Sisyphuses of our age."  In describing the death of her ex-husband, who was impotent in life but priapic at his death, Aaliya quips
In death Eros triumphed, while in life Thanatos had. My husband was a Freudian dyslexic. 
There is not a little literary background it is helpful to have to keep up with Alameddine's humor.  Another level on which the narrative functions is the history of Aaliya's relationships from distant and disconnected to present and accepting of closeness.  Yet another is a story of the dependence of several different characters on fictions, whether this means works of literature, or made up versions of other people's experiences.  Alamedddine's novel is rich, variegated, human, and surprising, and full of reading recommendations.  If I made a list of every worked referenced by Aaliya that I haven't read, it could keep me busy for a couple of years. A delightful and full reading experience.

No comments: