For our July text we read Frankenstein in Baghdad, a 2013 novel by Ahmed Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright in 2018. We met online on Zoom on the 6th July, and discussed the text for around an hour and a half.
The novel attempts to piece together the fictional events surrounding a spate of murders in Baghdad in 2005, carried out by an animated corpse created from an ensemble of body parts of those killed in various violent incidents as a result of the Iraq War. A series of narrative strands and voices undermines any objective truth but builds a picture of a complex and interconnected cycle of violence.
The novel was well received by the group, with many praising its intertextual use of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, its sophisticated narrative techniques, and its complex treatment of life in Baghdad following the US invasion of Iraq. We were honoured to be joined by Dr. Sinéad Murphy, a scholar of Arab Futurisms, and author of a fantastic article on the text, ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad: Human Conditions, or the Conditions of Being Human.’ The discussion zipped with amazing ideas and responses and I will do my best to relay a flavour of some of them:
We began by discussing the text’s use and exploration of Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein. The text, it was felt, engaged directly with the original, and also its afterlife as a cultural phenomenon. These wide intertextual allusions allow Saadawi to play with reader expectation as well as to enrich the ambiguity of the text.
As a result, nothing in the text can be taken at face-value. Every action and event is underpinned by its association with the cultural web of Frankenstein. The naming of the monster as ‘whatitsname’, for example points both to the quest in the narrative to find out the identity of the monster but also its historically nameless state of the monster in the Frankenstein intertext.
The text speaks to the original Frankenstein in interesting ways. Frankenstein in Baghdad mimics the original in its nesting of narratives, with a central chapter in both narrated by the monster itself. In Shelley’s version, the central chapter gives us the true history of the character. In Saadawi’s text, the central chapter narrated by the Whatitsname, appears only to compound the confusion over the meaning and purpose of the monster.
It was further suggested that Saadawi’s monster is a critique of Shelley’s concept of the human. While the monster in Shelley’s text is not affected by the disparate source of the different body parts that it is made of, Saadawi’s Whatitsname bears the trauma of the various bodies from which the parts are stitched. For Shelley the monster is an allegory of a new Romantic subject; for Saadawi the monster is an allegory for the trauma of history and cycles of conflict and violence.
At different points in our discussion we returned to the problem of genre. On the one hand, it was suggested that the label of science fiction was inappropriate to the text, while on the other hand it was felt that science fiction might be a helpful way of thinking about the texts defamiliarising effects.
Often science fiction is seen as a universal that transcends national and cultural borders, and that this view can often work to erase the specific formulation of the fantastic in the cultural histories of geographical areas outside the West.
Saadawi, it was pointed out, does not consider the text science fiction, and neither do his publishers. This was attributed to both a resistance to the sometimes imperialising gestures of genre naming and also to a publicity strategy that valorises texts that exist outside of or between genre labels.
However, the concept of science fictionality, in the broad sense of engaging with estrangement, was seen as appropriate to the text. Those living in the warzone of Baghdad, it was argued, were already living estranged lives that deconstruct Western narratives of a unified historical reality.
It was felt that the aim should be to dissolve the borders of science fiction in a non-colonising manner, in which the estranging properties of the genre could be recognised as well as the specific cultural histories of an area. Arab Futurisms was put forward as a better term that acknowledged the historical and cultural engagement with the fantastic in the Arab world, as well as describing the texts’ interest in temporality.
The complex weave of narrative voices and characters in the novel was foregrounded by a number of participants. It was suggested that the form of the novel was expressed in the allegory of the body of the Whatitsname: the life of the city is stitched together through a series of separate but intersecting narratives.
The technique was compared with the 19th Century social novel, such as those of George Elliot and Charles Dickens. However, instead of the different characters’ perspectives building up to an objective view of the life of a community, the narratives in Frankenstein in Baghdad tend to undermine each other; they are partial, contradictory, and often untrustworthy in some way or another.
The resistance to objectivity was described as a technique of counter-mapping, a technique which resisted the omniscience of an objective viewpoint of a narrator or reader. Though rejecting claims to the impossible state of entire knowledge, the text does build a complex image of a city constructed out of multiple subjective and idiosyncratic viewpoints.
Discussions of narrative form led onto geographical and architectural considerations. The urban focus of the novel tended to resist a reading of the novel as an allegory for the Iraq war or the nation of Iraq itself. Instead, the detailed setting of the novel in specific areas of the city of Baghdad, attempted to convey the interconnected experiences of conflict and trauma of an urban community.
The city was described as a palimpsest of layered cultures and histories. In Hadi’s dilapidated house, a verse from the Koran falls from the wall to reveal an alcove containing a statue of the Virgin Mary. The Jewish community of the neighbourhood are absent, but the architectural style of their homes is still recognised and admired. A bomb explosion uncovers an archaeological site.
The novel puts forward the idea of a city constructed not so much by addition but by a stripping away. This is not necessarily seen as a positive force, but it does show the layering of history that is visible in times of conflict.
This last section is a bit of a hodgepodge of interesting topics that we also discussed in the session and that deserve some summary. I guess the way to connect them might be the ways in which conflict and the trauma of conflict are weaponised in the novel to pacify the population of the city.
It was pointed out that the inspiration for Shelley’s Frankenstein was the investigation into electricity in the early 19th Century, and that for Saadawi’s text it might be surveillance. The ability to ‘see’ is a central concern of the novel. Characters always want to see the truth of events; whatitsname’s eyes dissolve and it must get new ones from an innocent bystander; various organisations are constantly surveilling characters in an attempt to understand and control events.
War has always left its influence on the culture that has grown up around Frankenstein. A participant noted that the stitches that have become the hallmark of the Frankenstein myth, only appeared after World War One, and reflects the imagery of the war wounded. It was suggested that Saadawi’s text adds the ubiquity of disintegrated bodies to the Frankenstein myth, reflecting the pervasive use of high explosive devices in the Iraq War. The different parts from autonomous bodies are constantly needing to be replaced, representing the cycle of violence in the city.
It was noted that Saadawi pushes the presence of American soldiers to the sidelines, decentralising their importance. The techno-military dominance of the US tends to be emphasised in representations of the Iraq war. In the novel, however, the Americans are rarely visible, but exert an unnerving control over all with the threat of unaccountable violence and power.
Finally, the representation of violence in the novel was connected with governance. The authorities maintain power over different groups by a tactic that the journalist Saidi describes as ‘an equilibrium of violence.’ The government, with the tacit consent of the US forces, ensure a balance of conflicting groups in Baghdad in order to create a static state of violence. Instead of working to end the war, the authorities exploit it in order to hold onto power and to control its citizens.