What is a woman to do? What is this particular woman to do? For a woman in her time and place (last half of the 20th century in Beirut), Aaliya (meaning the high one and the above), audaciously decided early in her life what to do. When she speaks to us, she is seventy-two-years old, divorced, without a profession or extended education, an avid reader of select books who has taken on the unassigned job of translating some of them, but not from the original language--she is translating from a translation. She lives alone in a family apartment which came to her when she married A proud Beiruti woman, distinct from being Lebanese, she is a pariah because of cultural and social traps and is regarded in a censorious way because she is a divorced woman living on her own. It is her fault (the woman’s fault) that her husband was impotent, and equally bad for her that he was a complete dolt and bore.
Alameddine masterfully uses stream of consciousness which transforms Alayia into a compelling narrator who seduces by her acerbic insights on life and ideas.
Though not physically beautiful (she tells us this) she is a Scheherazade. Her narrative is filled with metaphoric phrases, aphorisms and judgments robustly sustained throughout the novel. Her choice of books reflects a need for intellectual stimulation and beauty, and she is a true hedonist taking pleasure in ideas and sensations. This is not a quaintly eccentric elderly woman, perhaps only in the way she has found to live a satisfying life within her culture, time and place. She is a distinctive personality whose opinions may irritate and madden, but also captivate. Nothing escapes her dissection and thoughts on politics, justice, social morés, religion, and the ordinary daily life of her neighbors and her section of Beirut. She is never indecisive about what she loves and the same applies for what she disdains and comments with a dismissive, “Tfeh!” Her life is circumscribed but not reclusive and only because of a physical disaster, is she forced to reconnect with some of her neighbors. Aaliya is heartbreaking, poignant, surprising, illuminating, passionate and very amusing.
In literature there are other captivating,autonomous female protagonists in novels and plays: Momo, Auntie Mame, Travels With My Aunt, The Madwoman of Chaillot, Madame Sousatzka, Lysistrata. Aalyia joins that group, but as with the other characters, she stands strongly and uniquely on her own There is a somewhat comparable match for An Unnecessary Woman in Heinrich Böll’s Group Portrait With Lady which has a completely different format but presents another self-starting woman with unique views on life, who sustains herself in spite of ridicule and hatred.
In this novel several authors have repeated references: W. G. Sebald, Fernando Pessoa, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Bruno Schulz whose murder and its circumstances inspired the title of this book. Take out your tablets, hard copy and digital, because even the most avid reader will be breathless, and have a need to make notes on the array of authors, titles of books, stories, plays, musical works and quotations. There are layers of richness in this book which demand rereading, and book clubs could spend more than one or two meetings delightedly analyzing this brilliant novel. To quote Aalyia, "Literature gives me life and life kills me."
LAPL did not get this book until 2014, or I would have added it to the list for 2013 Best Books - Fiction. That does not matter because this will be an outstanding novel beyond last year or this.