Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (also known as The Arabic Booker) in 2014, the first Iraqi novel to do so. It has just been translated into English by Jonathan Wright, who has translated over a dozen Arabic novels, including several other IPAF winners.
The bleak and darkly comic novel is set in Baghdad in 2005, during the American occupation. Sectarian fighting is taking place across the city and the novel in punctuated by car bombs and suicide bombings with depressing regularity. Chaos, fear and wild rumours abound.
One of the book’s many characters is a seedy, drunken and disreputable junk dealer named Hadi. Hadi basically scavenges for his meagre living and when his friend is killed by a bomb Hadi finds that he can’t bury his body. Arms, legs, torsos and other oozing body parts are thrown together in an anonymous pile at the morgue.
So, Hadi begins to scavenge for body parts to sew together to make one complete corpse that can at least be given a dignified burial. When we first meet Hadi he has just found the last piece to complete his corpse, a single nose left over after another bombing.
The next day Hadi wakes up to find that his creation has left his shack. What has happened, it turns out, is that a guard at a hotel was blown up in a suicide bombing and his body is completely vaporized. Thus, he is a soul looking for a body and Hadi just happens to have a body without a soul.
Just as Hadi’s now re-animated Frankenstein’s monster (which Hadi dubs the “Whatsitsname”) is a mix of spare parts, the book too is a pieced together narrative. We see the Whatsitsname’s story through a variety of perspectives that all come together to form a composite of Iraqi society, high and low, during the terrifying time of the occupation.
The main character, Mahmoud, is a reporter who first hears about Whatsitsname from Hadi and becomes intrigued by the story even though he doesn’t believe it.
One of the most remarkable things Saadawi does in the novel is weave the actual fear and instability of life in Iraq in 2005 with the supernatural elements of the story. The monster becomes an allegory for the mindless brutality and violence of the combatting sides in Baghdad.
Whatsitsname starts off as a sort of avenging angel. He realizes that he has to kill those responsible for the murders of the people whose body parts he’s made up of, but soon the lines get very blurry. As old parts begin to fall off he has to keep replenishing them with new parts, which Saadawi describes in ghoulishly humorous ways.
Soon, Whatsisname considers himself to be — literally — the embodiment of the Iraqi state. “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,” he declares. The monster has superhuman strength and is impervious to bullets but he is also rotting and decomposing with every step he takes.
Whatsitsname is soon besieged by followers, mystics and fighters, who form into internal factions battling against each other. Whatsitsname loses focus on his mission and becomes less choosy about how or where he gets the body parts to keep himself alive. Eventually his killings become as random as those of the terrorists and he’s using the same excuses: “There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”
Saadawi uses a large array of characters who are all somehow in the monster’s orbit. Apart from Hadi, we have his neighbour, an elderly widowed Assyrian Christian who touchingly thinks Whatsitsname is her son Daniel who disappeared into the war’s dark hole 20 years earlier.
We have a wily and opportunistic realtor (a scavenger of bombed and abandoned buildings, sort of Hadi writ large) and Brigadier Majid, an ex-Baathist who runs a shadowy government office that employs astrologers to help track down the monster.
Everyone sees what they want to see in Whatsitsname: “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. But what project might that be? As far as Brigadier Majid was concerned, the monster itself was their project. It was the Americans who were behind this monster.”
The novel is well-sustained throughout. The shifts from reality to the paranormal and from black comedy to touching sentiment are assuredly handled. This is Saadawi’s first novel to be published in English. I hope that others will appear soon.
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated by Jonathan Wright) Penguin Random House