Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Review published on February 10, 2018.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is a retelling and modern update of the original Frankenstein story, but it’s oh so much more than that. It’s not a mere simple and faithful retelling, it doesn’t just transplant the Frankenstein monster from the streets of 18th Century Europe to those of Baghdad, post the US invasion of 2003. Rather like the original tale, this novel uses the story of Frankenstein’s Monster as an analogy for the fears and preoccupations of the society that it is based.

Hadi is a scavenger living on the margins of society in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Bataween. He is a notorious teller of tall tales, regularly regaling people with fanciful stories. He also collects human body parts left over from the horrific violence of the American invasion, and the civil and sectarian strife that follows, which he stitches together to make a hideous humanoid figure. Why he does this is not clear and when people learn of this he says that he hopes it will force the government to recognise the parts as real people and thus give them a proper funeral.

One night Hadi is caught up in a suicide bombing in which the security guard of a hotel is killed. The guard’s spirit finds Hadi’s corpse and floats inside, bringing it to life. While Hadi is collapsed on his bed recovering from the effects of the explosion, the creature he has made, which he refers to as the Whatsitsname, gets up and disappears. Soon reports fill the city of a horrendous looking criminal who commits murder and yet is impervious to gunfire and cannot be killed.

As with the original story by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein in Baghdad can be enjoyed on many different levels. Superficially it is a modern Iraqi take on a classic tale of gothic horror, but scratch the surface and this is so much more. Hadi’s creation and the dark rumours that swirl about in it’s wake must be understood in the context that they are set. Iraq was beset by the most vicious of sectarian civil wars in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003. Sunni extremists led by the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi led a swath of deadly and indiscriminate suicide bombings, which targeted Shiite districts, markets and mosques. Meanwhile, Shiite extremists, often in the guise of Ministry of Interior forces, abducted Sunnis from the streets, tortured and beheaded them and left their bodies in the streets. Amongst this maelstrom of violence it is only natural that rumour, paranoia and urban myth proliferated. The Whatsitsname’s and the authorities’ attempts to understand it – the novel features a mysterious Iraqi Tracking and Pursuit Department, who consult with psychics in an attempt to understand the violence and terrorism that engulf the country – can be seen as an analogy of a country on the brink of collapse.

This is a brilliant novel and Ahmed Saadawi is a huge talent. The translation by Jonathan Wright is first rate too and can’t be faulted. This is both an entertaining read and an important contribution to the growing body of post-invasion Iraqi literature and I would recommend it to anyone.

James Pierson 5/5

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
Oneworld Publications 9781786070609 pbk Feb 2018

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