Rabih Alameddine was born in Jordan in 1959, the child of Lebanese Druze parents. He grew up in Kuwait and Lebanon, leaving for the West (UCLA after London) at the age of seventeen. I was knocked out by his first two books, his 1998 AIDS novel Koolaids: The Art of War and 1999 collection of stories (the title one being very edgy) Perv. I got bogged down in what has apparently been the best-selling of his books, The Hakawati (The Storyteller, 2008), but went to the book launch appearance last month at the Upper Market (San Francisco) Books. Inc. for An Unnecessary Woman even without knowing that he was going to be interviewed by San Francisco writer Daniel Alarcón (born in Lima in 1997, author of War by Candlelight, and At Night We Walk in Circles, the latter a finalist for this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction).
I learned that the atheist Almeddine is the godfather of a daughter of Alarcón’s and that they consider themselves among the best writers under 5’7.” (I think this was a joke on Alarcón’s having been included in the 2010 New Yorker coronation of the best 20 writers in American under the age of 40. The SRO audience was amused.)
Almeddine considers himself a misanthrope, and probably would not be pleased that I thought he came off as curmudgeonly, with the convivial Alarcón asking questions at least. It is possible (IMHO) that like Aaliya Saleh, the narrator of his new novel, An Unnecessary Woman, he likes books more than he likes people, but (like her) this does not lead to grumpy rudeness. Before Almeddine could say so, Alarcón said that Aaliya is his most autobiographical character so far (I suspect the narrator in “Flight to Paris,” the story of an airborne conversation between a Lebanese gay man and an upper-class woman in Perv is more so, and the one in “Changing Room,” but Alarcón knows Almeddine much better than I do from an hour’s observation).
Almeddine said he had no interest in writing the same book as the previous one that people liked and that even positive reviews irritate him-that no one reads him the way he thinks he wrote. He knows, however, that once a book is published, the author has no say on how it is read. He also takes seriously the claim that authors write variants of the same book even when they think they are doing radically different ones. Issues recur though how the stories are told differs. He stressed that The Hakawati was written, not oral literature, not even oral literature transcribed by a sort of folklorist. And he was particularly appalled by readers inferring he was a happy-go-lucky and exotic (Arab) storyteller.
He reported that he has given up painting. He painted 278 self-portraits before deciding there was no room for more revelations in that medium (I think, but am not sure, that he meant room in the sense of physical rather than psychic space).
Someone asked how his books have been received in Arabic translation. He said that only one, I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters (2001) has been published in Arabic and did not say how it had been received.
Any Lebanese who read books can read English and/or French, which is the reason his protagonist only translates books (into Arabic) written in languages other than French or English. She works from the English and French translations of them rather than from the original languages (that is, she translates translations, albeit refracted in English and French pairs of them).
At Books Inc,, Almeddine said that he had given the 72-year-old Aaliya, who survived the decades of sectarian violence in Beiruit his own tastes, increasing the relevance of her annual translation projects that have included books by Bolaño, Borges, Calfino, Gogol, Hamsum, Kis, Kafka, Nooteboom, Saramango, Schulz, Sebald, Javiar Marias, Joseph Roth, and her seeming favorites, Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina. She does manage to plug Michael Ondatjee, Junot Diaz, Aleksander Hemon and Colm Toíbin writing in English and thus out-of-bounds for her, plus David Malouf and Patrick White, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee. She does not translate the literary works she chooses with any thought of publication. The boxes of each year’s translation just pile up. (In 1998 she was offered a translation project for hire: Lana Turner’s memoir Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth, which should would not waste her time on.)
Her credo comes from Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (who is often invoked in her nonchronological memoir): “The only attitude worthy of a superior man [person] is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.”
Almeddine’s novel is mostly not literary judgments or accounts of Aaliya making decisions in translating or in deciding what to translate. She was married for a time (ages 16-20) to a husband who was impotent and eventually divorced her. She kept a largish apartment, refusing to yield it to her own family members with growing families (or to take in her now-senile mother after a lifetime of neglect and calumny). She wonders if her uninterest in a husband is retrospective illusion:
“Is it true that I didn’t think of a husband, wish for one, or has the image I have of myself, the way I lie t think of myself, superimposed itself on [remembering] what happened then? … Let me put it another way. It is quite possible that I, like every Beiruti girl, dreamed of getting married, had fantasies of what my future husband would look like, but that after growing up, after having had a sad and incomplete matrimonial experience, I reinvented myself, convincing myself that I hadn’t dreamed of such trivial matters. It is possible. I sincerely believe that I didn’t, but I also don’t see myself having had that much courage as a young girl.”
It took courage and cunning to survive the violence, though survival was made somewhat easier by a warlord whom she had allowed to while away his youth in the bookshop she ran (but did not own). And it also took fortitude to carve out a life for herself after the father who doted on her died and her remarried mother focused on the sons she bore her second husband, treating her as “my family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage.”
The crisis that eventually comes (after bombs and sniper bullets have stopped flying) is not wholly unexpected, though what the other women in the apartment building surprised me.
I found the character living for literature easier to read than those in the metafictions by Enrique Vila-Mata that I have been reading of late, but especially having heard Almeddine say that he sought only books that changed his life, I have to ask if An Unnecessary Woman is a necessary book. I think that his first two books are, but that this one borders on being delightful and is definitely smart, but not really necessary. I liked it and can recommend it as a representation of female friendship, of Middle Eastern family structure and strictures, and of dedication to literature.(And I think that what ALmeddine said of himself – “The war taught me how to deal with impermanence, how to sharpen my sense of the absurd, and how to function in a chaotic world – also applies to Aaliya.
I asked Almeddine who he wrote for, whether he conceived of a particular reader or audience. He said that he tried to write what he would like to read, especially, with Koolaids, the kind of AIDS narrative he wanted to read but was not being written. (I wanted to ask what made his yellow shoes (pictured) his “atheist shoes,” but was more interested in the question of intended audience.)