Set in 2005, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, is a fascinating and cleverly constructed portrait of war-torn Baghdad in the wake of the American invasion that includes subtle allusions to Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein.
Featuring a vast cast of characters from diverse backgrounds (the character list at the beginning of the book was much appreciated), the novel provides a glimpse into the lives of people, who try to lead normal lives amidst the violence and suicide bombings that have become an everyday background noise in Baghdad.
In this chaos, we meet Hadi, a junk dealer, who picks up stray body parts that are left on the streets of Baghdad in the wake of car bombings and stitches them together to create a human being in the hope that the complete corpse would be treated as a person and given a proper burial. However, through a series of coincidences, the corpse is reanimated from the soul of Hasib, a security guard who lost his life during another car bombing and, unable to locate his body, lodged inside Hadi’s creation, the so-called Whatsitsname. The creature then roams the streets of Baghdad at night, seeking to avenge the deaths of the victims whose body parts make up his body, so that they could rest in peace.
“With the help of God and of heaven, I will take revenge on all the criminals. I will finally bring about justice on earth, and there will no longer be a need to wait in agony for justice to come, in heaven or after death. ‘Will I fulfil my mission? I don’t know, but I will at least try to set an example of vengeance – the vengeance of the innocent who have no protection other than the tremors of their souls as they pray to ward off death.”
Similarly to the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Whatsitsname feels misunderstood when people equate him to a criminal, because he sees himself as a kind of harbinger of justice. At the same time, the elderly Christian woman Elishva views Whatsitsname as an answer to her prayers, since she believes that the creature has the soul of her missing son.
What stood out to me in this novel was how the author not only managed to write a complex and effective allegory for the never-ending cycle of violence in Iraq, but also created characters that aren’t just chess pieces that make the plot work, but have distinct personalities, goals, dreams, and inner demons. The novel never tries to manipulate with the reader’s feelings, but instead casts a satirical lens on the horrors faced by the inhabitants of the city.
Whatsitsname soon becomes a media sensation, and a local journalist, Mahmoud al-Sawadi, is given the task to investigate and write a magazine article about the mysterious creature that is stalking the streets of Baghdad and terrifying its inhabitants. Through the connections of Ali Baher al-Saidi, the prominent owner and editor of the magazine, Mahmoud also comes into contact with the Tracking and Pursuit Department, a strange special information unit, supposedly set up by the Americans, that employs astrologers, mediums, and soothsayers to investigate unusual crimes and make predictions about future crimes.
Eventually, Whatsitsname discovers that he needs to kill more people to replace his old body parts, and what initially started as a revenge mission against criminals to bring justice, soon turns into a seemingly never-ending killing spree where the lines between criminals and innocents become very blurred. Violence leads to even more violence and Whatitsname becomes a clever symbol of the vicious cycle of violence that plagues Iraq.
“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.’ This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue. He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original components. This was the realization that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim.”
He also attracts a group of assistants and followers, who help him carry out his mission. However, they soon get involved in their own inner conflicts and begin to splinter into factions in a way that brought to mind the brilliant sequence from the 1979 Monty Python film Life of Brian in which a group of followers are squabbling over how to interpret a “message” from their Messiah.
I often see this novel marketed as a horror story, but I think this label is doing it a disservice, because people that will go into this expecting a scary story about a zombie who kills people on the streets of Baghdad, will most likely be disappointed. This is a literary novel about the effects of war that borrows elements from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and gives them a modern spin. One of my favourite reads from the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a novel that I definitely want to revisit sometime in the future.