Reality might be stranger than fiction when it comes to Iraq, but in Frankenstein in Baghdad — a Man Booker longlisted fictional masterpiece — Ahmed Saadawi accomplishes a rare feat by making sense of the madness in his own idiosyncratic way.
Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and set in 2005 post-invasion Iraq, the remarkable novel sees Saadawi putting an ingenious urban twist on the monster created by the Gothic Dr Frankenstein. An expertly woven satire, the book serves up hard-hitting social commentary on pertinent issues with the blackest of humour.
Featuring a disparate cast of Iraqi characters, Frankenstein in Baghdad seamlessly navigates its way between the surreal, horror and stark realism. Elishva is a grief-stricken mother still reeling from her son Daniel’s death in the war and is convinced that her patron saint will return him to her. Meanwhile, Hadi is a misanthropic junk collector who finds a corpse in his shed and ends up, inadvertently, creating a patchwork human after stitching together various body parts taken from victims of violence from explosion sites. Hence, Whatsitsname, our eponymous Frankenstein’s monster, is born.
A novel that deftly combines the daunting reality of day-to-day life in a war-torn city with a hint of self-deprecating humour
As Whatsitsname starts avenging the deaths of all the people that make up his body, the concept of justice and morality quickly become skewed. Hadi starts second-guessing his grotesque progeny as the line between victim and criminal gets increasingly blurred. Because he is composed of victims of terrorism belonging to all ethnicities, the irony is not lost on readers when the monster proclaims that he is the first true Iraqi citizen: “He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace. He was created to obtain revenge on their behalf.”
Saadawi deftly combines the daunting reality of day-to-day life in a war-torn city with a hint of self-deprecating humour, which pays homage to Mary Shelley’s seminal work. In Saadawi’s Baghdad, cars explode seemingly at random, and if someone had a death wish, they would only have to sit on the pavement to have it answered: “He sat there till darkness fell, deep in thought about the possibility that dozens of bombs had either exploded or been defused during that day. No day passed without at least one car bomb. Why did he see other people dying on the news and yet he was still alive? He had to get on the news one day, he said to himself. He was well aware that this was his destiny.’’
Despite the morbidity of its subject matter, what is so impressive about Frankenstein in Baghdad is that the tone never gets harrowing. Saadawi manages to strike the perfect balance between stark realism and mordant playfulness. With tongue firmly in cheek, the author informs us how, after an explosion uncovers a wall which some claim to be the most important Islamic archaeology discovery in Baghdad in decades, discussions arise about the “advantages of terrorism.”
In this city torn by violence, there is no dearth of strange events that are narrated with a tinge of macabre humour — the bodies of four beggars are found, each of them with their hands around the neck of each other “like some weird tableau or theatrical scene.” There is a special information unit set up by the Americans to investigate urban legends, unusual superstitious crimes and make predictions about future car bombings and assassination of important officials. American ambassadors have also formulated an assassination squad to create an equilibrium of violence on the streets between the Sunni and Shia militias to get leverage for negotiating new political arrangements in Iraq. In this manner, Saadawi laces his political commentary with liberal doses of magical realism and irony so as not detract from the sobering of the Middle Eastern geopolitical scenario.
Jonathan Wright’s graceful translation ensures that the whip-smart tenor of the original Arabic remains intact as the narrative moves fluidly through an absurdist morality fable which also serves as an inventive horror fantasy. Frankenstein in Baghdad is definitely one of the most groundbreaking novels to have come out of the Middle East in recent years. Besides delivering highly prescient commentary about the violence that the American invasion has brought into Iraq and how violence begets violence, this novel can hold its own as a masterclass in stellar literary fiction writing.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic
By Ahmed Saadawi
Translated by Jonathan
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 15th, 2018