Frankenstein in Baghdad

The Man Booker International Prize, like the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize before it, tends to be Eurocentric, reflecting, as it does, what is actually translated. This year nine of the thirteen long-listed books are by European authors with the others coming from Argentina, South Korea, Taiwan and Iraq. Han Kang has, of course, already won the prize, but Iraq too have a previous winner, with Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ winning the IFFP in 2014 with a title which is echoed in Ahmed Saadawi’s novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad. Whether this is a portent or not, Frankenstein in Baghdad is an excellent novel which I fully expect to make the shortlist.

Frankenstein is famously a patchwork narrative and, although Saadawi does not choose to recreate its pieced-together presentation (beyond a ‘Final Report’ which appears as a preface), he gives us instead a patchwork of characters, each bringing their own story. (A ‘List of Characters’ is included, though I can’t recall referring to it so well defined are the individuals who inhabit the novel). Saadawi uses an explosion to introduce his cast:

“The explosion took place two minutes after Elishva, the old woman known as Umm Daniel, or Daniel’s mother, boarded the bus.”

Though her daughters have left Baghdad, Elishva continues to stay in the same house in the hope her son Daniel, reported missing during the Iran – Iraq war, returns. Her house is coveted by real estate agent Faraj, who arrives at his office to find “cracks in the large front window” as a result of the explosion:

“The best thing would be to wait until she died and then no-one would dare to take over the house, since everyone knew how attached he was to it and acknowledged him as its future owner.”

The contents of her house, meanwhile, have caught the eye of Hadi, the junk dealer. Hadi, we learn, has changed since he lost his brother as a result of a car bomb:

“Nahem had already been dead for several months – from a car bomb that had exploded in front of the office of a religious party in Karrada, also killing some other passer-by and Nahim’s horse. It had been hard to separate Nahem’s flesh from that of the horse.”

In the aftermath of the most recent explosion he finds a nose which he takes home to add to the corpse he has been creating from body parts retrieved from the streets since his brother’s death, a body which comes to symbolise Iraq:

“I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as rubbish, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.”

He tells his audience in the coffee shop that the next morning the corpse was gone, but as Hadi is famous for his stories (to which he was “careful to add realistic touches”) no-one believes him. The corpse is, of course, the Frankenstein (‘s monster) of the title, brought to life by the combination of the lost soul of a hotel guard killed in the explosion and Elishva’s belief it is Daniel finally returned to her:

“With her words the old woman had animated this extraordinary composite – made up of disparate body parts and the soul of the hotel guard who had lost his life. The old woman brought him out of anonymity with the name she gave him: Daniel.”

The monster (known as Whatsitsname or the One Who Has No Name) begins to kill those responsible for the deaths of the various parts of his body. He kills Abu Zaidoun whom Elishva blames for Daniel’s death as he forced him to enlist; he almost kills Hadi, reasoning, “You’re responsible for the death of the guard at the hotel… If you hadn’t been walking past the hotel the guard wouldn’t have come out to the gate.” The rising death toll allows Saadawi to involve a journalist, Mahmoud, and a secret army unit in investigating the events, further widening the canvas of his portrait of Iraq.

Perhaps the best adjective for Frankenstein in Baghdad is fearless (like the monster itself), facing down the challenge of turning news headlines into literature. It utilises a large cast of characters to create a rounded vision of society without confusing or losing the reader; it folds elements of the supernatural easily into a realist narrative; it tackles serous issues with a lightness of touch and some humour, without ever seeming preachy or overly earnest. And it is never without life.

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2 Responses to “Frankenstein in Baghdad”

  1. Richard Says:

    “Fearless,” eh? Sounds good! For whatever reason, this is one of the few new releases actively calling my name. Am thinking of reading it back to back with Shelley’s original.

    • 1streading Says:

      It will be interesting to hear what you notice if you do that – no doubt there are links beyond my superficial reading.
      And, as I always say to anyone who mentions Frankenstein, have you read Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things?

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