Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi’s novel takes the premise of Mary Shelley’s classic and transposes it to American-occupied Baghdad in 2005, where frequent suicide bombings supply no end of body parts.
“Frankenstein in Baghdad”
by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright
Penguin, 281 pp., $16
Four beggars who seem to have strangled each other simultaneously … A soul that doesn’t know how to return to a body that’s been blown to bits by a car bomb … A “Tracking and Pursuit Department” that uses occult methods to hunt down a serial killer on the loose. …
These are a few of the elements at play in Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi’s fascinating novel, “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Arab world’s equivalent to the Man Booker Prize. This is its first appearance in English.
The novel takes the premise of Mary Shelley’s classic novel — a tortured being, composed from multiple body parts, is brought to life, leading to murder and mayhem — and transposes it to American-occupied Baghdad in 2005, where frequent suicide bombings supply no end of body parts.
At the center of the story is an alcoholic junk-dealer, Hadi, who takes it upon himself to scavenge those body parts and assemble them into a completed corpse that will be “respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.” But shortly after he puts the finishing touches to his “Whatsitsname,” its dead flesh is brought to life by a grief-stricken Christian mother who lost her son in the Iran-Iraq war and by the wandering soul of a hotel security guard looking for a body to inhabit.
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Saadawi strikes a feverish balance between fantasy and hard realism in “Frankenstein in Baghdad.” The fabric of the city’s neighborhoods couldn’t be more sharply etched. The gantlet that ordinary Baghdadis run between random bombings and scary encounters with American soldiers is so routine to them that some simply shrug it off as they go about their business.
The concerns of ordinary existence — making a living, finding a decent place to live, seeking female companionship — occupy more of their attention. There’s even a subplot about state-employed architectural preservationists trying to continue their work in the middle of this chaos.
The book roams all over the city as it drops into the lives of Realtors, hoteliers, street vendors, cafe owners, journalists, photographers and neighborhood gossips. Astrologers, fortunetellers and the occasional djinn also figure in the action.
As Saadawi moves among their different points of view, all the characters have their say — including the Whatsitsname which, like Victor Frankenstein’s creation in Shelley’s novel, is given an opportunity to relate its own version of events (into a digital recorder, this being the 21st century).
Hadi describes his mix-and-match corpse as “a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace.” The Whatsitsname itself believes it offers “the only justice there is in this country” with its actions — until it realizes how caught it is in an unrelenting cycle of violence.
“Time was my enemy,” it says, “because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission, and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.”
By the end of the novel, several characters, scared and appalled at what their city has become, are bent on melting away and escaping it themselves. Saadawi, Baghdad-born and still living the Iraqi capital, delivers a vision of his war-mangled city that’s hard to forget.