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Frankenstein in Baghdad

Frankenstein in Baghdad

Ahmed Saadawi says that he hopes Frankenstein in Baghdad will help people better understand Iraqi society and the tumultuous events that have taken place in the country over recent years, and translator Jonathan Wright talks about the transition from his career as a journalist in the Middle East to translating Arabic literature.

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2018 longlist interviews.  


Ahmed Saadawi, author of Frankenstein in Baghdad

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It's been a very special event for me. I'm definitely waiting to see how it progresses and the possibility of the novel appearing on the shortlist. The Arab and Iraqi cultural press has treated the news as an exceptional event that indicates that Iraqi novels are gaining ground. The most important thing is that the prize puts the novel in the spotlight, which helps promote it and attract more English-language readers. Maybe this novel will help people understand Iraqi society and the momentous events that have taken place in Iraq in the past decade.

The Guardian described the book as ‘wickedly funny’ and the Financial Times picked up on its ‘pitch black humour’ – what drew you to the use of comedy?

Humour and black comedy mitigate the intensity of tragic and dramatic events, while also reinforcing the realism. I personally, along with many Iraqis, have lived through shocking things of the kind that take place in my novel but at the same time we went on living our lives at a reasonably minimal level. We fall in love and have some good times. People have a sense of humour even in the strangest times.  I remember during the parliamentary elections of 2005, a suicide bomber failed to detonate his explosive belt outside a polling station and the troops managed to kill him. One of the soldiers stood over the dead body and said: “If this guy had drunk a bottle of arak and made love to his wife in the morning, he'd be lying asleep in bed at home, rather than dead on the pavement.”


Jonathan Wright, translator of Frankenstein in Baghdad 

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I was a little surprised, to be honest. So far very few novels translated from Arabic have received this much attention. But I have learned from my experiences of the last five years that you shouldn't allow yourself to be carried away by a longlist. It's not like taking part in many other forms of competition, where you can train hard for the next stage. It's completely out of our hands. I also know that literary prizes have some features of a lottery. So much of it is beyond the author's and the translator's control. Much depends on the identity of the judges and the criteria that they set themselves as they weigh their choice.

I haven't read any of the other books yet, so I'm entirely unqualified to judge their merits, but I have read previous books by Jenny Erpenbeck, Han Kang and László Krasznahorkai so I know that the competition might be formidable. Besides, for a translator, winning prizes is as much recognition of your choice of book as it is for your skill as a translator, and there's a large dose of luck in that. And I must mention that this book was very skilfully edited by John Siciliano in New York, more thoroughly than any other novel I have translated. Perhaps in some cases editors should receive recognition too.   

What did you most like about translating Frankenstein in Baghdad?

One of the book's many virtues is the very strong sense of place that it conveys. I don't know Baghdad very well, having spent at the most a couple of months there. But nowadays, with all the digital resources we have, it's possible to transport yourself virtually into the lanes of Bataween, and build up an idea of where and how these events might have taken place. It was fun piecing all that together. Apart from the Frankenstein's monster theme, the novel also has powerful subplots – one of them about the nexus between political power, the media and violence that ran through the period when Iraq was under U.S. occupation. I very much enjoyed Ahmed's depiction of that murky world. In fact I think it is more powerful and evocative in that respect that almost any documentary or media representation could be. The other subplot – the story of a Christian family in Baghdad – is very sensitively portrayed and full of emotion.

You worked as a journalist in the Middle East for nearly thirty years before translating your first major work, what made you decide to embark on a career in translation?

Several reasons. Literature was always an important part of my life, including plenty of translated literature, though I cannot pretend to be well read in Arabic literature compared with academics who have devoted their lives to it. Secondly, I was always interested in the mechanics of language, especially the semantic aspects and how different people convey much the same message in very different ways. Thirdly, after the American invasion of Iraq and the considerable attention that the Arabic-speaking countries attracted in the Euro-American sphere I felt that exposing outsiders to Arabic literature would serve the cause of cultural exchange and dialogue, which is clearly much needed. It shows outsiders that, with some limited local specificities, human beings are much the same everywhere, with the same hopes, fears and aspirations. It's important to remind them of that. Lastly, after the relentless rush of working as a news reporter, meeting deadlines and having to wake up in the middle of the night because something horrible has happened, literary translation is a very relaxed and detached way to make a living, and hopefully some of the novels I translate will survive much longer than a mere news story. 

Longlists, shortlists, laurels, applause or attentive, even breathless silence: each sign of recognition for a story, a novel, a play or a poem is a cause for celebration and shows how rewarding it can be to attempt to put the things and the creatures of this world into words. Such recognition is proof that someone who has raised their voice has found an audience, an ear. All storytelling moves between these two poles—a voice and an ear. If no one dares to break the silence to tell a story, there will be nothing to hear, understand and transmit. And conversely, if a story does not find a ready ear, its telling is no more than a sad act.