Yesterday The Banipal Book Club met at the Rosetta Stone Bookshop to discuss Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi. There was quite a crowd at the store, reflecting the book’s popularity both in the original Arabic and — perhaps even more — in translation. The unprecedented success of this particular book in translation did come up as a topic during the discussion. The translator, Jonathan Wright, suggested that it was in part due to the time Penguin had invested in promoting the book, tying it in to the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and also, perhaps, the impact of the “Frankenstein” in the title.
Of course, the title of the book is a bit of a trick, a reference to the sensationalist article that a journalist writes on the rumours about the creature or the “Whatsitsname” (ايش إسمه). As several people said during the discussion, the book does not have that much to do with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, other than the conceit of a reanimated creature. The reanimation here though has little to do with pseudo-science, but is rather the result of a wandering soul finding a corpse haphazardly put back together by junk dealer Hadi in the opening pages for reasons that are not clearly explained. This started a discussion on continuity problems and editing culture in Arab publishing and the difficulties this creates when it comes to translation.
The name “Whatsitsname” or ايش إسمه in the original is a reflection of this haphazard nature of how the creature comes to be what it is. The difficulty of translating the name, a sort of equivalent of “thingamajig” was mentioned during the discussion, as was the characterisation of the creature, whether he should be thought of as a machine-like avenger or a more emotionally-complex character whose remark that he needs “spare parts” should be taken as black humor.
As Jonathan Wright mentioned, the creature is never referred to as a monster in the novel itself (despite the blurb) and he does have a close relationship with my own favorite character, Elishva (and her cat!), though perhaps not with his creator Hadi.
Towards the end of the discussion, the topic of how Arabic literature can be more successfully marketed in the west came up again — and the question of why some books such as this novel and Alaa El Aswany’s Yacoubian Building take off and others that have been popular in the Arabic world have no impact at all when translated. While no one had any definitive answers, or the key to ensuring a book’s success, expressing shared frustration with the current state of things did lead to some book recommendations to add to our TBR lists.
Next book to be discussed at the Banipal Book Club — Ghada Samman’s Farewell Damascus!