We spoke to the author and translator of Frankenstein in Baghdad about the novel’s success, its religious elements and truth in storytelling.
Jonathan, do you feel the reception of Frankenstein in Baghdad is markedly different from what it was three years ago when the book was first published in Arabic, given that the situation in Iraq has changed?
Jonathan Wright: I think it is much the same. I’ve been surprised by the warm reception it’s received. I really don’t think any other book that has been translated from Arabic into English has received such attention.
So what is different about this one?
JW: It’s really hard to say. I suppose it’s the topicality and the fact of the invasion of Iraq and so on. The title helps. And having good publishers. They’ve been very aggressive. It would be nice if books succeeded just based on their merits but that’s not the case.
Do you feel that there is a difference between how Arabic books are perceived in the West versus how other regions are perceived?
JW: I’m not sure there is! I think we’re doing rather well. When you look at the number of titles translated from Arabic – if you compare it to, say, Chinese literature, I think we’re doing rather well. I’m certainly not complaining. Obviously there are preconceptions about what Arabs might be writing about. Often people are surprised that they write about the same things as everyone else – you know, falling in love and everything else.
Do you feel that Arabic books are used more for their anthropological insights over their literary quality in the West?
JW: I’m sure this is true, yes. But I don’t find that particularly offensive or problematic. Except that it does raise the question of representation and to what extent these particular novels are representative of the whole, because a novel is under no obligation to think about being representative, that’s not its business.
What’s the purpose of the novel then, for you?
JW: Well it’s not for me to say and it’s a mix of things. But personally I have a reputation in the Arabic-English world for being a bit of a populist. I quite like the idea of finding books that have a fast pace and are gripping, that have a story that grabs your attention. There aren’t many, and they’re quite hard to find, but if they’re there I’ll do them.
It’s great to add translated title to the mix of what ordinary people are reading so that they don’t notice that they’re translated. I try as far as I can to make myself invisible and not to remind the reader too much that this is a translated world.
Ahmed, what is the purpose of the novel for you?
Ahmed Saadawi: I believe that the reason for writing a novel is connected with the ancient tradition of storytelling. When the first person told stories it was firstly for amusement and to satisfy the curiosity of other people and their desire for information and knowledge. There’s also a metaphysical reason. Because the world that we see is insufficient. These are all elements in the essence of novel-writing today.
Would you say that storytelling and the novel have the same purpose as religion? After all, religion also has metaphysical elements, plus entertainment value etc.
AS: That’s an interesting question. Yes, all these things have some connection: dance, art, prostitution, literature, everything. They all had religious objectives. And then art no longer was required to serve a religious purpose. It was based more on human experience of life. Religious texts tried to tell us that there’s a depth to life and that there’s another world beyond. Similarly, art tells us that there’s depth to life, but in the same world, not in another world.
What is the role of religion then in Frankenstein in Baghdad?
AS: The religious element is strong and fundamental in the novel. The process of making the What’s-Its-Name is taken from Muslim and Christian traditions, because the spirit is animated by the soul. And in the story there’s a reference to a saviour. It’s a saviour in a political context. But in the Arab world in general the political objective is not distinct from the religious objective. In difficult times people do revert to religion. In Iraqi Shiite culture the concept of a saviour is extremely important: the Mahdi. In the 1990s after the Kuwait war the Americans did serious damage to the country and life became very difficult. A lot of people said, This is the time that presages the coming of the Mahdi. Even in 2005 when sectarian violence was intense, there were at least three people who claimed that they were the Mahdi. All these elements are included in the identity of the What’s-Its-Name.
If religion is important, and you said storytelling is important, what is the role of truth versus storytelling in your novel?
AS: Religious belief, political belief, dogma: all of them tell a story and say, This is the truth. People will fight another to assert the truth of their story. Novels tell us that in fact there isn’t one story. Everybody has a piece of a true story. It is like the story of the blind people and the elephant.
Six blind people all touch a part of the elephant, and they never know the whole elephant?
AS: That’s how it is. Nobody has the whole truth.
Jonathan, what’s the one book you’ve translated other than Frankenstein in Baghdad that you think deserves the most attention and praise?
JW: Last year I did an Egyptian book which I really liked and hope will be a big success. It’s a memoir of a middle-aged Egyptian gay man, In The Spider’s Room. It’s really quite a moving story. He spent seven months in jail. They have a round up of gay man and he’s arrested. The authors did interviews with many of the men who were picked up. But it’s not based on any particular person, it’s fiction.
Ahmed Saadawi is an Iraqi novelist, poet, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker. In 2010 he was selected for Beirut39, as one of the thirty-nine best Arab authors under the age of forty, and in 2014 he became the first Iraqi to win the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction. This prize was awarded to Frankenstein in Baghdad, which also won Le Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in 2017, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. He lives in Baghdad.
Jonathan Wright is a British journalist and literary translator. He studied Arabic at Oxford University. He is the translator of Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014. He has served as Reuters’ Cairo bureau chief, and he has lived and worked throughout the region, including in Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia and the Gulf. His translation of In The Spider’s Room by Muhammad Abdelnabi is out now.