Standing before a smudged bathroom mirror, Aaliya Saleh, the 72-year-old narrator of “An Unnecessary Woman,’’ warns: “I begin this tale with a badly lit reflection.” Reader beware, but also be enchanted: What follows is the opaque self-portrait of an utterly beguiling misanthrope who suffers from arthritis, insomnia, constipation, incontinence, and, though she will not admit it, solitude. Alone in a book-congested Beirut apartment she has occupied for more than 50 years, Aaliya, who has just finished translating “Austerlitz’’ into Arabic, offers the kind of “exquisitely disconsolate” meditative prose that she admires in W.G. Sebald.
She has in fact already translated 37 books from a Babel of languages — excluding English and French, since, she figures, Lebanese can read those languages themselves. Aaliya, who knows only English, French, and Arabic, produces her translations through a somewhat tortured system of her own design — using either a French or an English translation to render into Arabic works by Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Italo Calvino, Sadegh Hedayat, Knut Hamsun, Bilge Karasu, Imre Kertész, Danilo Kiš, Cees Nooteboom, José Saramago, Bruno Schulz, Leo Tolstoy, and other literary masters.
As soon as she finishes a project, she exiles the manuscript into storage, since the translation of a translation has no prospect of publication. For Aaliya, translating her favorite authors is a spiritual discipline. The pointless process is more important than the product.
“An Unnecessary Woman’’ takes its title from its narrator’s sense that she is de trop, a nonessential speck in the cosmos. She is keenly aware of “how alone I am, how utterly inconsequential my life has become, how sad.” In one of many literary allusions that pepper a piquant text, Aaliya quotes the final sentence of Joseph Roth’s “Flight Without End’’: “No one in the whole world was as superfluous as he.”
However, she claims primacy in superfluity. Aaliyah’s own mother, after all, rejected her, and her only friend died 40 years ago. “I am my family’s appendix,” she proclaims, “its unnecessary appendage.” Her marriage, at 16, to an impotent man she continues to despise, lasted only four years. Like Peter Kien in Elias Canetti’s “Auto-da-Fé,’’ perhaps the one notable work of fiction not alluded to in this novel, she is a proud outsider, monastically absorbed in her books, reflections, and memories. Aaliya’s thoughts — about genocide, war, marriage, sex, suicide, and fiction — provide the drama for a narrative in which walking down the street constitutes significant action.
Lebanon attained independence in 1943, which means that, like Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai, who enters the world at the moment that an independent India is born, Aaliyah is coterminous with her country. Its capital, her native Beirut, she describes as “the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden.”
But she records the violent history of Lebanon, which she disdains as a “pygmy state,” primarily in terms of the sieges and power outages that interrupt her task of translation. Of the Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Palestinian, and Israeli fighters who leave corpses strewn on nearby sidewalks, Aaliya wishes a plague on all their houses. Though many of her favorite writers are Jews (her favorite philosopher is the maverick Spinoza), she complains that: “Israelis are Jews who have misplaced their sense of humor.”
Home for Rabih Alameddine, the author of four books before “An Unnecessary Woman,’’ is divided between Beirut and San Francisco. Publication in 2008 of “The Hakawati,’’ a lavish Chinese box of stories about storytelling, propelled Alameddine, whose native language is Arabic, into the company of Louis Begley, Edwidge Danticat, Ariel Dorfman, Ha Jin, Aleksandar Hemon, Dinaw Mengestu, and Gary Shteyngart — translinguals who have enriched contemporary American literature through their deft handling of adopted English.
Whereas “The Hakawati’’ overwhelms through profusion, Alameddine’s new novel achieves potency through pith. Its epigrammatic elegance is apparent in Aaliya’s observation about a timorous young man she knows who ostentatiously takes up with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: “There is none more conformist than the one who flaunts his individuality.”
Aaliya notes that: “Reading a fine book for the first time is as sumptuous as the first sip of orange juice that breaks the fast in Ramadan.” You don’t have to fast first (in fact it helps to have gorged on the books that Aaliya translates and adores) in order to savor Alameddine’s succulent fiction.
Steven G. Kellman is author of “The Translingual Imagination’’ and recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s 2006 Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing.