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Frankenstein in Baghdad
by Ahmed Saadawi
translated by Jonathan Wright
Oneworld Publications, London, 2018
Pbk 272 pages, £12.99 Kindle £3.99
On 12 April 2018 it was announced that this edition of Frankenstein in Baghdad had been shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize.
The Whatsitsname in No Man’s Land
Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi’s novel Frankenstein in Baghdad is a profound, powerful and extraordinarily imaginative work. Part thriller, part horror story, part supernatural fantasy, part meditation on violence and justice, it is both harrowing and darkly comic. The novel is set in 2005, two years after the US and UK-led invasion that was supposed to usher in a bright, democratic “new Iraq”. Instead, “death stalked the city like a plague”. Baghdad is being torn apart by bombings and suicide attacks, and sectarian violence is rapidly growing.
It is as if the invasion and occupation have unleashed monstrous, uncontrollable forces. And now an actual monster enters the scene: a massive, elusive, rarely glimpsed figure whose face has “lines of stitches, a large nose and a mouth like a gaping wound”. This figure, dubbed ‘the Whatsitsname’, is blamed for an escalating series of strange and gruesome murders. And weapons are useless against him: bullets leave him unscathed. People project onto the Whatsitsname their fears, hopes and beliefs. To many he is a criminal, to others an avenging saviour.
What is the agenda of the monster? Is he even real, or is he a rumour, or urban legend? Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid, head of the secretive Tracking and Pursuit Department, is desperate to track down the Whatsitsname with the help of his team, which includes astrologers and fortune-tellers. The ambitious young journalist Mahmoud al-Sawadi, whose boss Ali Baher al-Saidi recently promoted him to the editorship of Al-Haqiqa (The Truth) magazine, is also keen to uncover the facts about the Whatsitsname, in order to write a sensational cover story on him.
The Arabic original of Frankenstein in Baghdad, published by Manshurat Al-Jamal in Beirut in 2013, won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2014. Now the vigorous, clear and supple English translation by the multiple prize-winning translator Jonathan Wright is garnering much critical acclaim. The book has been longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, which is split equally between author and translator, and is the only title translated from Arabic to appear on the longlist of 13 translations.
Frankenstein in Baghdad has already appeared in several languages. The French translation by France Meyer, Frankenstein à Baghdad (Piranha, 2016), won the foreign novel category of Le Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire 2017, awarded for speculative fiction.
The publication of Frankenstein in Baghdad in English coincides with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of publication of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
The creator of the Whatsitsname could hardly be more different from Victor Frankenstein, the scientist in Mary Shelley’s novel. He is junk dealer Hadi, “a scruffy, unfriendly man who always smelled of alcohol”, living in squalor in the popular quarter of Bataween.
Hadi is a liar, and spinner of tall tales. But his stitching together of a giant corpse out of body parts from various individuals torn apart by bombs can be seen as an act of compassion. He tells his acquaintances in Aziz’s coffee shop that he had assembled a complete corpse “so it wouldn’t be treated as rubbish, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial”.
Hadi has been looking for a long time for a nose to complete the corpse, and at last retrieves one from the carnage left by a bombing in Tayaaran (Aviation) Square. After completing the corpse and leaving it in his shed, he is caught up in a suicide bombing carried out by a Sudanese truck driver outside a hotel. Badly shaken, he staggers home, and on waking finds to his consternation that the corpse has vanished. Unbeknown to Hadi, the wandering soul of Hasib Mohamed Jaafar, the hotel security guard killed in the hotel explosion, has taken up residence in the corpse.
It is Hadi’s next door neighbour, the old Assyrian widow Elishva, who completes the bringing to life of the Whatsitsname. The devout Elishva – wonderfully portrayed by Saadawi – has for years been praying to St George to return her son Daniel from the war with Iran. Daniel was supposedly killed in that war, although his body was never returned. Elishva believes that the prone motionless corpse she sees is the returned Daniel. When she tells him, “Get up Daniel. Get up Danny. Come along my boy,” he stands up. She has animated him and “brought him out of anonymity”.
Ahmed Saadawi is, in addition to being a novelist, a poet, journalist, documentary film-maker and screenwriter. His talents in these fields have helped him produce a complex, gripping, well-paced narrative with a rich cast of characters (there is at the front of the novel a helpful listing of the 34 main characters).
Saadawi conveys a depth of feeling for Baghdad and its ordinary citizens, and its history. Elishva symbolises a multi-confessional Iraq that is in danger of slipping away. The building in which she and Hadi reside was built in the Jewish style, and at one point in the novel she carries out religious rituals at churches of various denominations, and at a mosque and a synagogue. At first the Whatsitsname kills purely to avenge, as a form of justice for those whose body parts have gone to make him. But once any particular victim has been avenged, the body part that came from him falls off the Whatsitname’s body. And if the Whatsitsname fails to avenge a victim after a certain length of time, the relevant body part drops off anyway. In order to survive, the Whatsitsname must therefore constantly find fresh replacement body parts. The introspective monster faces moral dilemmas on the question of whose body parts may be used, and how they should be attained. Eventually, he is “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 of 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.”
One chapter of the novel consists of a monologue by the Whatsitsname, as recorded on a digital recorder Mahmoud has lent Hadi. The Whatsitsname says he has been living in an unfinished building in No Man’s Land with three main assistants – the Magician, the Sophist and the Enemy – and three lesser assistants: the young madman, the old madman and the eldest madman. “The youngest madman thinks I’m the model citizen that the Iraqi state has failed to produce,” the Whatsitsname says. “Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds – ethnicities, tribes, races and social classes – I represent the mix that was never achieved.”
The old madman thinks the Whatsitsname is “an instrument of mass destruction that presages the coming of the saviour that all the world’s religions have predicted. And the eldest madman thinks the Whatsitsname actually is that saviour. Perhaps inevitably these various assistants and their respective followers start to disagree, and fight each other in a civil war.
Ahmed Saadawi’s work was published for the first time in English in Banipal 37 – Iraqi Authors (2010), with an excerpt from his 2008 novel He is Dreaming or Playing or Dying. The collection from the Beirut39 project of the 39 best young Arab authors under 40 Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World (2012), edited by Samuel Shimon, included a work-in-progress excerpt by Saadawi from Frankenstein in Baghdad; and Banipal 49 – A Cornucopia of Short Stories (2014), included his story “I Used to Count my Friends on my Fingers” plus a shortlist excerpt from Frankenstein in Baghdad. Saadawi’s latest novel The Chalk Door is excerpted in Banipal 61 – A Journey in Iraqi Fiction, see page 127. Doubtless many readers would welcome an eventual full English publication of this latest novel by a highly impressive author.
Published in Banipal 61 – A Journey in Iraqi Fiction, Spring 2018 (Click here to go to Contents of Banipal 61)