Frankenstein in Baghdad: An Evening with Award-Winning Author Ahmed Saadawi at the Manchester Writing School

By Andy Turbine

Inspired by Mary Shelley’s proto-Gothic Frankenstein, author Ahmed Saadawi has transplanted the tale to a 21st century setting - Iraq in the early days of the US invasion – in his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, first published in 2013.

As part of Manchester Writing School International Literature Week in May 2018, The Manchester Writing School welcomed Saadawi to read from and discuss the novel, joined by the translator of the work Jonathan Wright, with an evening event which took place in Manchester Met Business School. 

 Frankenstein in Baghdad tells the story of a composite of corpses, stitched together, and resuscitated by fantastic forces - for which Saadawi won both the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and France’s Grand Prize for Fantasy.

The event also celebrated Manchester’s recent designation as a UNESCO City of Literature – as Saadawi himself lives in Baghdad, which is already has the UNESCO status. Presented in partnership between The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies and The Manchester Writing School, and with British Council support, this was a fascinating cultural and literary discussion in front of a live audience.

Also involved in the discussion were Dr Linnie Blake from The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies as well as The Manchester Writing School’s Nicholas Royle. Both author and translator were interviewed, before opening the floor up to audience questions.

A particularly atmospheric aspect of the event was when Saadawi and Wright took turns reading from the novel: Saadawi from his original Arabic text, and Wright from his English translation. In the first reading of the evening, the audience heard how the 'Whatsisface' (one of many names given to Saadawi’s creature) is created by Hadi, a junk dealer, shaken by the death of his closest friend. Hadi gathers fragments of human remains ‘left in the streets like rubbish’ and constructs a complete corpse, hoping that it would be ‘respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.’

There are a number of poignant moments in a novel which, despite its supernatural slant, never shies away from illustrating the everyday horror of life in a city transformed into a battlefield by consecutive wars and sectarian violence.

Dr Linnie Blake noted the tradition of the Gothic to invoke ‘something nasty from the past coming to wreak havoc in the present’, and highlighted the novel’s reference to the Baathist party and the Iran-Iraq war. She asked Saadawi what, apart from the work’s setting in the wake of the US invasion, ‘haunts the novel?’

Saadawi drew on his own experience in response, of his father and uncles disabled by war, of another uncle lost to the conflict, and of his own time serving in the Iraqi army.

‘I have suffered from the consequences of the war, and the American invasion was just one event in this series of miseries and tragedies in Iraq, so it’s almost impossible to investigate the consequences of the American invasion of Iraq without examining the events that preceded,' he said.

Nicholas Royle asked translator Jonathan Wright about the process of taking an Arabic novel and converting it into English, asking whether translating from Arabic posed any ‘particular challenges’.

Wright expressed his own ‘Chomskyan approach to language’, believing that ‘all human beings say pretty much the same things’, and that although Arabic is structurally unusual, for him the main challenge of translating is writing in English.

‘After working as a translator for ten years now, pretty much full time, I pretty much concluded that understanding the original text is only 30% of the work. The rest, the other 70%, is writing in English – how to write in English. The text inspires you with an image or an abstract impression which you then have to convey in English and that is most of the work,’ he said.

He also admitted that one major challenge he faces as a translator is that ‘our languages are quite vague about emotional states. Emotional states don’t map onto each other from language to language – and the same goes for sounds and forms of light’.

In spite of the grotesque violence of the novel’s time and place, Dr Blake observed that Frankenstein in Baghdad is ‘a very funny book’ and praised Saadawi’s fantastic cast of characters: ‘I feel I know them. I feel I have lived alongside them – they are funny people. Humour seems to be the glue that sticks them together in the face of absolute atrocity’.

For Saadawi, speaking through an interpreter, this dark humour is a reflection of life’s contradictions, and he argued that ‘presenting reality from a melodramatic perspective only- it’s unrealistic. It’s not valid’.

He added, ‘You can’t only look at it from one angle. I always say that when we come across painful, shocking events, when these events pass, and we look back on them, we can actually write them from a funny angle.’