Reading Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad is like taking a stroll through the landscape of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Intense, surreal, poignant, confusing, engaging, visceral – this is an important and groundbreaking Arabic novel.
We know Baghdad for her rich history of literature, myth and storytelling or in stark contrast her miserable contemporary existence. Currently we view the land of two rivers through the western media’s lens not so much as a country full of real people, but a landmine of tragedy.
From terrorists, wars, dictators and sectarian violence, it’s hard to get the full picture of what haunts Baghdad and her people when not framed in news features that barely scratch at the surface. However, in Frankenstein in Baghdad we get a glimpse of the historic city in her splendour, contradictions and misery set within a gothic fantasy and sci-fi setting and through the people who live in her neighbourhoods.
Saadawi who is also a poet, screenwriter and journalist was the winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for Frankenstein in Baghdad which was also recently announced as one of the 13 books to make the Man Booker International Shortlist.
The story opens when a suicide bombing shakes a neighbourhood in Baghdad. The incident, as well as the state of Baghdad, is described by an intriguing cast of character all with their own backstory, intentions and quirks who are in one way or another affected by the aftermath of the bombing.
There is Elshiva an elderly Christian woman who lives alone in a grand home filled with antique furniture. Still grief stricken over the disappearance of her son Daniel years ago, whom she is sure will return one day, Elshiva’s only companion is the painted picture of a saint which she regularly talks to.
Faraj is a realtor who is desperate to buy Elshiva’s home and resell it to expand properties like a hotel in the neighbourhood which has turned into a boarding house for journalists. One of those journalists is Mahmoud. Ambitious and talented, Mahmoud works for a powerful and well-connected magazine editor. While struggling with his own past, Mahmoud is trying to make a name for himself, advance his career and get the next big story – which he does when he meets Hadi a dodgy junk dealer.
Hadi roams Baghdad collecting antiques to sell them, collecting stories which he retells to foreign journalists and also, secretly, collecting body parts. Due to the numerous explosions around Baghdad, Hadi starts to collect severed body parts of different victims, that he believes deserve a proper burial, and for some reason starts to sew them together.
After the latest suicide bombing, a mysterious storm hits the city and Hadi is mortified to find that the body he’s been sewing together has disappeared. The Frankenstein creature is found by Elshiva who believes that he is Daniel, her long lost son.
Although the Frankenstein creature doesn’t outwardly deny this, he is possessed by a bombing victim’s soul and develops a personality and conscious all of his own. He decides to seek revenge on the killers of all his different body parts, attacking and killing both criminals and innocent people. Hadi, his creator, tells Mahmoud the story of the creature and the story is written and spreads throughout the city, turning the Frankenstein into a superstar.
What is particularly fascinating about the Sadaawi’s Frankenstein is his own conviction that he is a good person, as he tells the media, and that his intentions are misunderstood. Using his celebrity status as a type of platform, he goes on to say that he’s only seeking revenge for what’s happened to him that it’s he, the creature created from so many different Iraqis of classes and sects that is the true Iraqi citizen.
An important motif throughout the novel is the idea of who or what is Iraq. There isn’t one sweeping epic story here, as we are used to in traditional forms of the Arab novel. The destruction and reincarnation of that form of storytelling along with that of Baghdad as a city is depicted through the many stories that are nonsensically yet cohesively interconnected within the story frame linked via Baghdad itself.
Through Jonathan Wright’s almost flawless translation, which is true to the source without sounding cliché or adding a sensationalist twist to the text, Saadawi’s wartime contemporary take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a testament to his unique filmic storytelling technique.
Although Saadawi zooms in on grisly and violent details from blood on concrete and wisps of hair from a torn scalp, he pans naturally to dark humour, where the police force rounds up everyone they deem to be ugly in the city in search of the Frankenstein monster. Then through a few lines he’s able to zoom out into the greater city and painful themes such as absence, grief and loss, leaving the reader torn at intersections of many emotional and spiritual disasters.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is a great reminder that everyone has a story. Beggar, policeman, journalist, widow, neighbour, boss, friend or even the creature we all call monster – all of them are full of and part of stories.