Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad, Oneworld Publications, 2018.
Translation: Jonathan Wright.
In more ways than one Frankenstein in Baghdad is a novel in conversation both with a literary context and a historical context. And, strangely enough, this fantasy story has common points both with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
Baghdad, nowadays. A capital destroyed by the war and the continuing civil war, in which terrorist actions rhythm the day to day lives of its inhabitants. There's Elishva, who lives alone in a house coveted by speculators and whose son died in the war; there's Mahmoud, the journalist, who emulates his boss and who tries to uncover the mystery of people seemingly randomly killed by strangulation; there's the strange Tracking and Pursuit Department, in which astrologers predict the next terrorist bombings; finally, there's Hadi, a junk dealer, who will create the Whatsitsname out of body pieces from victims of explosions.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is a tapestry of lives in the Iraq capital, and particularly in a poor neighbourood, with its junk dealers, unscrupulous real estate agents, small cafés, shabby hotels, its grandmothers who feud and chat, its beggars. In a sense, it is an incredibly intimate novel, in which we enter those lives who carry on in a torn country.
And this is where the Whatsitsname come in, its body constructed from pieces of victims of terrorist attacks. It is a beautiful metaphor for the city itself, once whole and thriving, now a creature with scars, whose limbs fall off, pieced by a junk dealer, made of people killed in brutal and blind attacks, seeking an end. In a sense, the Whatsitsname may be the only awaken character in the novel: while the others are all looking for promotions, pretend people they loved aren't dead, think that they can solve their financial issues, all glued in their own problems, grief and ambitions, the Whatsitsname is the only one looking for an end to violence. But by using violence in turn...
The title is, in a sense, misleading, as there are significant differences with the Shelley classic. The story is fantasy, not scifi, and where Shelley's creature had to learn everything, the Whatsitsname already knows too much. It doesn't have to interrogate itself on humanity, as it lived in its own flesh all that it is to be human. There are also cheeky references to a pulp vision of Frankenstein: as the original story escaped its own original novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad plays delightfully with stories told, retold, untold and exaggerated, also in keeping with the great Arabic traditions.
But what the Whatsitsname seeks, and other characters among with him, is a spiritual salvation - and this echoes deeply with Frankenstein and his creature - and hope. There's a beautiful syncretism of all three Abrahamic religions in the novel, reflecting the richness and mixed past of Baghdad, but also of some religious superstitions, like astrology and talking saints icons, and all are aiming towards love and hope, as the three religions are.
Frankenstein in Baghdad picks up the premise of Frankenstein - a body made of the part of dead people and animated - and its spiritual aspect but it is to set it in a time and place where all the great human questions are slightly different from those of the Shelley novel because of the context.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is a deceptively simple novel with incredible depths. My only regret is that though not a word is wasted, the gallery of characters creates a kind of slump in the pacing. It's definitely not a story for someone looking for an action packed novel but it will definitely appeal to people who have liked The Underground Railroad. If you are ready to enter those characters' lives, their hopes and their pettiness, their grief and their violence, you will read a wonderful story.
The writer's Twitter account.
If you've liked Frankenstein in Baghdad, you may also like