"I imagine looking at this room through a stranger's eyes," Aaliya says of her apartment. "Books everywhere, stacks and stacks, shelves and bookcases, stacks atop each shelf, I in the creaky chair… I have been its only occupant."
There is this lover of Math, an engineer, hiding inside himself, half a painter, half a writer. He wrote a book about a seventy year old retired book seller and lured me into believing that he was a woman. Rabih Alameddine turns out to be a gifted writer who painted Aaliya Saleh, his heroine, in such vivid colors and dainty details that I was certain he was a female writer.
An unnecessary woman by Rabih Alameddine revealed to me a world I had no sense of- that of Beirut, the Elizabeth Taylor of cities, which shelters not only civil wars and the necessity of an AK-47 rifle in bed. The book portrays the simplicity of life into a different corner of the world, surprisingly rich in the drama of everyday life. Aaliya is in her seventies, a widow who worked in a book shop all her life, translating her passion for reading into large boxes of books no one shall ever read. She has no children of her own, no close family, no friends. What she has is blue hair, a love for music -Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven- an inlaid lust for books, humor, a sharp mind, a critical eye, a lively memory and the ability to make a lemonade of the lemons life bestowed upon her. Apparently, this book is not about anything crucial and grand, yet it envelops you into a world of essentials. It is, by all means, a book for clever people, well-read bookworms who will appreciate the literary references and take notes on a light heart.
It is daring and slightly outrageous to be writing about a woman in her seventies. This woman has nothing spectacular to brag with, no major accomplishments, no significant relationships, yet there is such depth and richness within the layers of the narrative that you are left wondering about your own intricacy, mainly. Such filigree of emotions and natural way of conveying them into words require a sensitive touch, a skillful pen and a curious eye. You would think a woman would qualify for the task. Surprisingly, a mathematician tried his hand at shaping Aaliya to the reader and he made her irredeemably universal.
Aaliya is bold. She dyes her hair blue, even if by mistake. Then she makes amends with her estranged, screaming of a mother. And washes her feet. Such moments are heart-breaking. Rare, unique, exulting of subtle emotion and tension. Similiar to having a man take out blackheads from your back after making love to you. It takes a certain kind of sensitivity from the reader to comprehend the delicacy of such moments, finding themselves somewhere between intimacy and distaste. Life throws at you the most unexpected labours -washing the body of a loved one might be a bliss or a pain.
It is fascinating to picture Aaliya Saleh creating secret literature while constantly exhaling literature through her old lungs, and storing it in her bathroom. If you share such hidden thoughts and desires about books, buying them in piles, waiting to finish one just to start another, in the most natural succession, if you have read at least a part of her favorite writers and find yourself quoting books, then you are part of this woman's world and she has come to the right hands. She is Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, Lila in The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, Muriel Barbery's Renee in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. She is the wonder in all of them and then some more. The extra snippet comes from Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf to Javier Marias and Fernando Pessoa, Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Italo Calvino, Sadegh Hedayat, Knut Hamsun, Bilge Karasu, Imre Kertész, Danilo Kiš, Cees Nooteboom, José Saramago, Bruno Schulz, Leo Tolstoy, and many others.
“Reading a fine book for the first time is as sumptuous as the first sip of orange juice that breaks the fast in Ramadan.” Some books are worth fasting. And then, after purging the literary veins in yourself, enjoy the feast!