7 MAY 2018 | KAREN KAO
It’s raining body parts in Baghdad. This is a normal occurrence in occupied Iraq though the culprit could be anyone. Baathists, Al Qaeda, Americans, the insurgency. The police hose down the streets with practiced ease but they leave the body parts untouched. Along comes Hadi, the junk dealer, who finds what he needs: a nose.
So opens Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, a novel of a thoroughly modern mad inventor and his uniquely Iraqi creation. Hear the monster speak:
Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds – ethnicities, tribes, races, and social classes – I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen.
200 years ago, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus first appeared in print. Mary Shelley chose to publish anonymously to preserve her reputation. When her identity became known, Shelley claimed the story had come to her in a dream. No proper young lady could have made up such a tale.
Today, Shelley is hailed as a literary genius, a founder of science fiction. Jill Lepore describes Shelley’s masterpiece as a set of nesting Russian dolls.
The outermost doll is a set of letters from an English adventurer to this sister, recounting his Arctic expedition and his meeting with the strange, emaciated, haunted Victor Frankenstein. Within the adventurer’s account, Frankenstein tells the story of his fateful experiment, which had led him to pursue his creature to the ends of the earth. And within Frankenstein’s story lies the tale told by the creature himself, the littlest, innermost Russian doll: the baby.
Like Shelley, Saadawi tells many tales. Frankenstein in Baghdad is a war novel about those who choose to stay. Most of them are insane, including the creator of the monster, who gives himself a quest. Hadi, the junk dealer, wants to bury each abandoned body part.
so it wouldn’t be treated as trash, so it would be respected like other dead people.
Things go wrong, of course. The monster is alive and filled with purpose.
the Whatsitsname was made up of the body parts of people who had been killed, plus the soul of another victim, and […] given the name of yet another victim. […] He was created to obtain revenge on their behalf.
a war zone
Revenge turns out to be a full-time job for the Whatsitsname. So many scores to settle. So many innocents to avenge. Meanwhile, his undead body is rapidly deteriorating. As each body part decays and falls off, the Whatsitsname must replace it. With each addition, the monster acquires the spirit of yet another victim. Not all of these spirits are noble.
There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is about the banality of war. How casual death and killing can be. How utterly senseless the Iraqi conflict was. The novel takes place between 2006 and 2008, in the midst of devastating violence. There is the cycle of reprisals between Sunni and Shia militias. Hatred of the invaders is all that unites the insurgency. And let’s not forget about the US surge.
Yet the Baghdad Saadawi depicts is a multi-faith, multiracial community. Hadi lives in the Jewish Ruin. His neighbor, Elishva, prays to Saint George. Hadi’s best friend is the cafe owner, Aziz the Egyptian. Unfortunately, death is equally non-denominational.
For a while [Hadi] sat on the sidewalk, smoking. He assumed a car bomb or some other explosive might go off at any moment and that this was a good place to get killed by one. […] No day passed without at least one car bomb.
Why not fight an insane war with a monster, some astrologers and a pack of playing cards? Death is on everyone’s mind, especially those in power. They want to know when and how they will die. The question is exceedingly practical and Brigadier Majid is there to answer.
“Should I order an armor-plated car, or don’t I need one?” one of the politicians once asked him. His parliamentary bloc had been assigned only three armor-plated cars, the politician explained; should he fight to obtain one?
In proper Frankenstein tradition, the monster should be some extreme version of ourselves. He can be more innocent (Mary Shelley), more evil (Boris Karloff) or just better-looking (Rocky Horror Picture Show). Saawadi makes the Whatsitsname his most eloquent character. Since no one can kill or catch the monster, his reputation grows.
In Sadr City they spoke of him as a Wahhabi, in Adamiya as a Shiite extremist. The Iraqi government described him as an agent of foreign powers, while the spokesman for the U.S. State Department said he was an ingenious man whose aim was to undermine the American project in Iraq.
frankenstein the novelist
Before Saadawi’s novel was translated into English, it was crowned with the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Then Jonathan Wright translated it. Frankenstein in Baghdad is now on the shortlist for the 2018 Man Booker International.
You would think, given these accolades, that Frankenstein in Baghdad is a work of literary fiction. But reviewers have variously described this novel as an absurdist morality fable, horror fantasy or even allegory. Maybe it’s all of the above, a hodgepodge of literary styles and genres stitched together to form this story. Luckily for Saadawi, genre-bending is a thing these days, according to Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties.
But I like to think of Frankenstein in Baghdad as an old-fashioned ghost story. Just imagine all those dead bodies. And the tradition of restless ghosts is even richer and older than Mary Shelley’s creation and worldwide, to boot. We’re Dante to Saadawi’s Virgil as he guides us through the hell of Baghdad. His ghosts talk to each other and offer advice in the Baghdadi version of a bardo. All of them are hungry for something.
Maybe Hadi is right: what these ghosts need is a proper burial. Or perhaps their ambitions aim higher. To restore Baghdad to the jewel it once was. Or to gain that most elusive of prizes: peace in our time.