Just before I began this book I learned that Rabih is a man’s name, a Middle-Eastern man’s name. It means, alternatively, “spring,” or “winner.” I wondered what kind of Middle Eastern man felt he could write a book about the internal life of an aging widow. And now I know. It would be a man who reads.
This is a book about loneliness and connection. Aaliya, a name meaning “the exalted one,” is a translator. That is, she spends her time translating into Arabic books written in English or French. Some of the books she translates are translations of translations. Her entire life since her early divorce from an impotent husband has been consumed with this endeavor, one book a year, sharing the work of literature’s greats. She stacks her translations in cartons in the reading room of her apartment in Beirut. She is seventy-two years old.
Not long into listening to the voice from the head of this old woman I began to feel this was the indispensable book: a book I needed to read again and again, to study, to enjoy as refreshment, as instruction, as revelation, sentences changing shade and emphasis depending on the angle of the sun, on the time of year, on the colors in the room in which I sat. Too many sentences needed remarking upon, too many references needed thorough investigation to let it go with only one reading. This was the woman, who by dint of translating the “greats,” had honed her instinct for the critical moment, the real thing, the human condition.
This book about a desperate woman living alone, growing old and infirm in a city riven by dissention and war, is ultimately redemptive, optimistic. It feels like a blessing, a balm. It feels like the sun on a cool day, or a cool breeze when the temperature rockets. It is literature.
”There are two types of people in this world: people who want to be desired, and people who want to be desired so much that they pretend they don’t.”
I want to read everything by Rabih Alameddine.
Rabin Alameddine is interviewed by Dwyer Murphy in Guernica.
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