Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
Translated from the Arabic, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad updates a classic from the literary canon into a devastating, modern-day political allegory. In an attempt to give a rightful burial to the countless victims of suicide bombings in Baghdad, a local junk dealer named Hadi attempts to reconfigure fragmented victims into a single body that can be delivered to the coroner. To Hadi’s surprise, his creation is inhabited by the drifting soul of Hasib, a hotel guard who was the recent victim of a truck bomb. With feet firmly planted in the realm of magical realism, Saadawi finds a physical form for the ethereal sense of loss, anger and helplessness that pervades in the Middle East. In Frankenstein in Baghdad, fear is made flesh.
“They all dreamed something about Hasib,” Saadawi writes. “Parts of one dream made up for parts missing in another. A little dream filled a gap in a big one, and the threads stitched together to re-create a dream body for Hasib, to go with his soul, which was still hovering over all their heads and seeking the rest it could not find.” Hasib isn’t anybody particularly special, but he was once living, like so many dead before him. “He lodged inside the corpse, filling it from head to toe, because probably, he realized then, it didn’t have a soul, while he was a soul without a body.”
At the start of Frankenstein in Baghdad, Saadawi introduces a cast of local characters: in addition to Hadi the junk dealer, the neighborhood is filled with cafe-goers, hoteliers, real estate moguls, and batty locals, like the devoutly Christian Elishva who believes Hadi’s monster to be her son Daniel, returned from the war. The novel’s early chapters feel like small-town mid-20th Century American Modernism; it’s uncomfortable to recognize this familiar style as buildings continue to explode in the background.
A team of journalists working for the magazine al-Haqiqa look to feature the monster in a story and expose what they think is nothing more than an urban legend. But, mysterious deaths have been reported in town, seemingly at the hand of a vigilante. Hadi, prone to storytelling and embellishment, isn’t the person to set the record straight, so he decides to offer the monster a tape recorder to tell his own story. At this point Frankenstein in Baghdad shifts into a new form, and morphs into the shape of a searing political commentary.
“They’re accusing me of committing crimes, but what they don’t understand is that I’m the only justice there is in this country,” the monster explains. “The innards of the darkness moved and gave birth to me. I am the answer to their call for an end to injustice and for revenge on the guilty.” Late in the novel, Saadawi introduces yet another thread, the mysterious “Tracking and Pursuit Department” which is led by a brigadier and a team of mystic astrologers. The astrologers refer to the ghosts that drift through town as “tawabie al-khouf, the ‘familiars of fear.’” The monster is Iraqi fear personified, but Saadawi takes it a step further: “Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds,” the monster explains, “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.”
Ironically, the monster finds himself slipping into a relentless cycle of violence of his own. He needs to avenge the deaths of those who provided each of his new body parts, but discovers that if he does not do so in a certain amount of time, those parts would rot away and need further replacing. “Time was my enemy”, the monster mourns, realizing that there was no way to stem the tide of death around him.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is an ambitious, important read, but ultimately tries to achieve too much. The enjoyable portions of the novel’s first half fade away as Saadawi introduces new characters and jumps into the story’s more overtly political stretches. Saadawi’s attempts to weave in threads about journalism and mysticism are intriguing, but fail to achieve the same resonance as the novel’s more heartfelt and community-driven developments. Still, there needs to be more Arabic fiction in the Western hemisphere, and Frankenstein in Baghdad is a fine forerunner to what should soon be a internationally celebrated literary movement.