So, anyone paying attention to my Sunday Rundowns for the past few months will know that I’ve been suffering from a major reading slump recently. So much so that the last time I reviewed a book was way back in April. In fact, the book I’m reviewing tonight was one I started at the beginning of April. Yes, I stopped to read another book in between but after that it took bloody ages. I thought I was never going to finish. Every time I sat down to read I just couldn’t pluck up the energy. It’s a huge shame because I was so excited to read this novel. It was actually on my ‘Most Anticipated Books of 2018‘ list. For one thing, how can anyone ignore a title quite like that? It’s a fantastic thing. Especially for someone who loves Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein so much. The war in Iraq is modern history but is something that we all have memories of in some way. The idea that the two were being combined into something darkly comical was super appealing. It’s just a shame I lost my mood for reading. As much as I enjoyed this, I think it deserves a reread when I get to a suitable time in my life. Once I’ve stopped lending it to everyone I keep convincing to read it. I just can’t help myself. I’m obsessed with this book.
Ahmed Saadawi’s novel Frankenstein in Baghdad was first published in 2013 and won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It’s absolutely fitting that the first English translation was released 200 years after Mary Shelley’s own story of deadly mismatched corpse was released. Although, for all of the obvious connections between the original Frankenstein and Saadawi’s story, the two are actually very different. Yes both rely on gothic elements to tell the tale of an undead monster and deal with issues of punishment and transgression. However, Saadawi’s creature doesn’t quote Paradise Lost or ruminate on what it means to be human. Instead, he becomes a symbol for the futility of war.
Saadawi’s novel is set in Baghdad during the US-occupation of Iraq so it is a landscape continually changed by car bombs and social unrest. The situation has brought everyone to the brink and they are all having to adapt their lives accordingly. Although, junk deal Hadi, after losing a friend in an explosion, finds the treatment of the dead to be severely lacking. When he is presented with a random selection of bodyparts, Hadi takes to gathering the remains of bomb victims and stitching them together to make a full corpse. He hopes that his actions will shock the government into giving the innocent people caught up in the violence the respect they deserve.
Taking us down an absurdist route, the narrative starts to remind us if Lincoln in the Bardo when, as the completed creature lies dormant in Hadi’s house, the soul of a recently departed security guard, takes refuge inside the thing the junker has dubbed the Whatsitsname. The creature rises from the dead and begins a campaign of revenge for all of the victims that make up his physical form. Having expert control over the mix of styles, this trip into the fantastical realm allows Saadawi to show us that, compared to the reality the state was facing, the idea of an undead corpse rising and walking around the city didn’t seem so far-fetched. That the story a drunk junk dealer tells to the customers in a bar is no less outrageous than the stories being reported all around the world.
Saadawi’s novel is a darkly funny satire yet deeply affecting portrayal of life in a war-torn country. It is impossible not to find the narrative funny and entertaining but everything is tinged with the reality. As if Saadawi is telling us that only through the use of humour is it possible to understand and break apart such horrific and senseless events. That only though the story of this strange creature can we really see the futility of war. The Whatsitsname quickly finds out that once one victim is satiated that part must be replaced and the process begins again. Saadawi uses the basic premise of Shelley’s novel to present the endless cycle of violence and questions the idea of what a victim actually is. Being made up of a mixture of races, tribes and social classes, the Whatsitsname hails itself as the “first true Iraqi citizen” but, ultimately, finds that its composite body is unable to sustain him. A metaphor for the body politic, Saadawi is clear to point out that the state of Iraq is as unstable and flimsy as the creature itself.
Although, there is much more to Frankenstein in Baghdad than the creature. Saadawi presents us with a large and varied cast of people affected by the events. There is Elishva, the lonely housewife who refuses to accept the death of her son and prays for his safe return. Elishva is under threat from the greedy real estate mogul Faraj who has seen an opportunity to buy up the houses in the area for a small price. Once the Whatsitsname starts enacting its revenge, there are plenty of people working to discover the creature. First, the ambitious journalist, Mahmoud al-Sawadhi, who sees it as the big scoop that will make his name. Then there is the mysterious Tracking and Pursuit Department run by Brigadier Majid and his band of magicians. Finally, we see the residents of Baghdad, from Elishva’s neighbours, religious practitioners, business owners, and prostitutes. We get to see quite the picture of Baghdad during this period.
And the narrative, much like the creature at it’s centre, is stitched together through different perspectives and moments in time. The splits often have the effect of subduing the tension and changing the tone of the novel. It isn’t always the terrifying tale of horror nor is it always the gripping war novel. It adapts to the situation and will stop in the midst of one dramatic tale to a much calmer plot. It all has the affect of summing up the reality of war and the idea that every event, no matter how trivial is a small part of military history.
Frankenstein in Baghdad may be quick to associate itself with the classic gothic novel written by Mary Shelley 200 years ago but it is so much more than that. This is a funny and intelligent look at a country torn apart by war. It presents the people of this state as real people and attempts, just as Hadi tried to, to restore what was broken. To give some respect to the poor victims who lost their lives in acts of horrendous violence. It is a sentimental and touching novel that belies its basic premise. It’s impossible not to be drawn into the story and, as you go along, it will continually surprise you.