Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 26 May 2018.

Earlier this year, The Sun ran a story about a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the headline “FLAKENSTEINS: Snowflake students claim Frankenstein’s monster was ‘misunderstood’ — and is in fact a VICTIM.” The article was mainly a thinly-veiled excuse to sneer at, among other things, the concept of human rights, but the story was also picking up on a similar article in The Times earlier that week: “Frankenstein’s monster? He was stitched up, say millennials.” The Sun piece caused a predictable round of social media guffaws thanks to its reactionary tone and apparent ignorance that reading Frankenstein’s monster sympathetically is common practice.

This mildly amusing social media storm casts an unexpected light on Jonathan Wright’s translation of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. Also published this year, and shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, one of the themes that Frankenstein in Baghdad explores is the relationship between press sensationalism and the politically complex nature of victimhood. The title ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ itself appears in the novel as a sensationalist media headline, grafted by an unscrupulous editor onto a more sober article by one of the novel’s journalist characters. All the news reports we see are distorted and partisan, and a general atmosphere of confusion and distrust permeates the novel, suitable for the book’s setting between 2003 and 2008. As one character remarks, “We are in the middle of an information war,” and the nature of Baghdad’s ‘Frankenstein’ is one of many contested facts.

The plot is, if not straightforward, at least easy to follow; a Baghdad junk dealer, Hadi, begins collecting the stray limbs and organs of the city’s many bomb victims, stitching them together into a gruesome “Whatsitsname” in the hopes that it might be “respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.” When a hotel guard, Hasib, is vapourised by yet another suicide bomber and his soul is left with nowhere to go, he possesses the Whatitsname and begins pursuing bloody vengeance on the killers of its constituent body parts, attracting the attention of, among others, the Baghdad press, government, and occupation forces.

The book’s large cast means the reader never gets comfortable with a single perspective, and the book’s structure is consistently wrong-footing. Each chapter is broken into five sub-chapters, an appropriately fragmented style which jumbles the chronology and subjectivity of the book’s events. This structure also serves the novel’s absurdist sense of humour, the more outlandish conceits blending in with the surreal detachment from the rest of the war. (A personal favourite moment comes just after the Whatsitsname’s escape: “Hadi went outside and looked up and down the lane for a sign that something strange had happened, but he wasn’t willing to stop any of his neighbours to ask, ‘Excuse me, have you seen a naked corpse walking down the street?’”)

The Whatsitsname himself is a compelling presence, even if the novel’s structure means he’s out of the picture for longer than one might expect. When we do hear from him, it is usually via people who have some professional interest in his existence. His longest section of narration comes via a digital recorder handed to a journalist (the veracity of which is questionable; the possibility that the tape is a hoax is repeatedly brought up). Our experience of the Whatsitsname is deliberately mediated (at one point via a literal medium), and this formal distance prevents the reader from ever trusting or siding with him completely.

What little we do know is continuously warped by rumour, or by simple misinterpretation. At one point the Whatsitsname commits a triple murder in which three homeless men are found dead, having apparently strangled each other. The authorities perceive it as almost artistically perverse (“If Hazem Abboud had seen this and taken a picture, he would have won an international prize”) but the Whatsitsname later explains it was a darkly comic accident. This disconnect is further heightened when the Whatsitsname is profiled in the Baghdad magazine al-Haqiqa (literally ‘the Truth’ in Arabic), and is illustrated by a photo of Robert Deniro from the 1994 film adaptation of Frankenstein. The media, along with almost every other character in the novel, consistently misinterprets and misrepresents the Whatsitsname, contributing to a general sense of unease and distrust around the creature.

In his own telling, the Whatsitsname discovers that, as he takes revenge on the killers of his constituent parts, the avenged parts decay and drop off. To retain a complete body, therefore, necessitates further killings to acquire new parts. At one point he acquires a cult of followers who end up stealing the corpse of a man killed fighting in the streets, forcibly grafting his less innocent organs onto the Whatsitsname’s body, before they themselves are mostly wiped out by infighting. From there, the Whatsitsname begins killing less and less discriminately, even starting to murder innocent people, implicitly because the murderous intent of his new body parts has been incorporated into his personality.

The Whatsitsname’s anxiety over his own makeup is a fascinating tension throughout the novel. Composed of a multitude of people’s remains, from a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, at one point he declares himself “the first true Iraqi citizen.” This mixed identity bleeds into later anxieties about the morality of his actions:

The Whatsitsname was now at a loss for what to do. He knew his mission was essentially to kill, to kill new people every day, but he no longer had a clear idea who should be killed or why. The flesh of the innocents, of which he was initially composed, had been replaced by new flesh, that of his own victims and criminals.

This blurring of victimhood and guilt is one of Saadawi’s clearer inheritances from Shelley, though Saadawi’s setting means that the provenance of the monster’s parts is more central here than in the original. Put simply, it matters who has died, and how, to create Saadawi’s monster. What’s more, the idea of a multitude of parties, combined in one messy, unstable body, whose violence only begets more violence, is a functional metaphor for the war itself. It’s a context far removed from Shelley’s Romantic anxieties, and one possessing a disturbing power of its own.

If the novel has flaws, they mainly come in the last few chapters. The late introduction of the character of “the Writer,” who interviews the rest of the cast and diegetically writes the novel itself, feels a bit too neat for a book so otherwise invested in untrustworthy mediation. Also frustrating is a late twist in Hadi’s own subplot which, while an amusingly sick joke for lovers of the original Frankenstein, feels underdeveloped, blazed past without the space to properly move or horrify.

Overall, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a thoughtful, engaging, and darkly amusing novel. It feels particularly relevant not only post-Iraq War, but in our current age of fake news and cultural warfare. Saadawi’s Whatsitsname, like the original Frankenstein’s Monster, is both victim and villain. The struggle to reconcile the two, and to understand their intersections — a task not helped by hyperbolic, even misleading media portrayals — feels more important than ever.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is available to buy, RRP £12.99. The novel is translated by Jonathan Wright.

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