Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2018

Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright #BookReview

Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International, the title of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad clearly signals its debt to Mary Shelley’s ground-breaking horror novel Frankenstein (1818).  Thanks to endless remakes of the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff, everybody knows the Gothic horror story of an experiment gone wrong which created a monster that could not be controlled, and Saadawi’s book is a none-too-subtle allusion to the disastrous American experiment in bringing democracy to Iraq so that other Middle Eastern States might follow its example.

In a recent Whisperings, Sue introduced me to the term ‘parallel stories’ for books that retell other works, quoting the definition from the West Milford Township Library:

A parallel novel owes its basic structure to a work by a different author. It can borrow a character and fill in his story, mirror an “old” plot or blend the characters of one book with those of another.

Frankenstein in Baghdad fits into this definition because it mirrors the Shelley plot.  And alas, IMO, it suffers from the same problem.  It’s a very long time since I read Mary Shelley’s book, but it’s my recollection that it was a great concept let down by clumsy writing and awkward execution.  (She was only 18 when she wrote it, so I should cut her some slack, I know).  Saadawi’s book has been longlisted for the MBI not because it’s great writing or exemplary translation, but because it brings to a Western audience something of the reality of life in the monster created by The Coalition of the Willing.

What happens is this: in the insane chaos of the US Occupation of Baghdad, a junk dealer named Hadi forages through the rubble of suicide bombings to find missing body parts for the corpse he is assembling.  Although his motives don’t really seem consistent with his disreputable character, Hadi does this because he wants the body parts to be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.

The sky was cloudy and threatening a downpour.  The workers were lined up in large numbers across from the grand white Armenian church with the cross-topped towers in the shape of octagonal pyramids.  Smoking, chatting, drinking tea, eating cake from the street vendors on the wide pavements or pickled turnips or beans from the nearby carts, they waited for vehicles looking for day labourers for building or demolition work.  Along the same kerb there were buses calling for passengers going to Karrada or to the University of Technology, and on the opposite kerb it was much the same: cars interspersed with stalls selling cigarettes, sweets, underwear and many other things.  A grey four-wheel drive stopped, and most of the workers sitting on the kerb stood up.  When some of them approached, the vehicle exploded in a ball of fire.  No one saw it coming; it all happened in a fraction of a second.  The people who weren’t injured – because they were too far away, or screened by other people’s bodies, or by parked cars, or because they were coming down the side lanes and hadn’t reached the main street when the explosion went off – all these people and others – like those in the offices next to the Armenian church and some long-distance taxi-drivers – witnessed the explosion as it engulfed the vehicles and the bodies of the people around them.  It cut electricity wires and killed birds.  Windows were shattered and doors blown in.  Cracks appeared in the walls of the nearby houses, and some old ceilings collapsed.  There was unseen damage too, all inflicted in a single moment.

Hadi was watching the scene after the commotion had died down and the huge cloud of smoke had lifted.  (p. 19-20)

(You can see here the clumsiness of the writing.  That very long sentence with all those dashes is nine lines long in the book.  And then there’s that allusion to unseen damage which goes nowhere.  Still, it’s a graphic image of street life before the carnage).

But Hadi, who’s a bit short on for friends, also likes to dine out on this story of the corpse, repeating it often and embellishing it in the bars he frequents.  That is, until the corpse comes to life…

An old woman called Elishva thinks it’s her son Daniel who went missing in the war, and it acquires a support team of other disaffected people who assist with its killing spree.

  • The Magician, who worked for the old regime (i.e. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party) but failed to conjure adequate spells to keep out the Americans (because they had a formidable army of djinn’ too, not to mention an arsenal of advanced military hardware.) He’s accused of crimes under the old regime and he works to keep The Whatsitsname safe so that he can avenge those who’ve wronged him; 
  • The Sophist, a spin doctor, good at what he does because he doesn’t believe in anything himself;
  • The Enemy, an officer in the counterterrorism unit, a living example of what the enemy looks like’ and the source of leaked information because he’s corrupt;
  • The Young Madman, who thinks The Whatsitsname is a model Iraqi citizen because its body parts are co-operatively multi-ethnic, representing what the Iraqi state had failed to produce;
  • The Old Madman, who thinks The Whatsitsname is an instrument of mass destruction that presages the coming of the saviour that all the world’s religions have predicted. He wants to help annihilate those who’ve gone astray in order to accelerate the arrival of the saviour.
  • The Eldest Madman who thinks The Whatsitsname is the saviour and expects to share in the glory.

The Whatsitsname, however, as we learn from a tape recording he supplies to an ambitious young journalist, thinks he is the only justice in Iraq, and that he is justified in avenging the people from whose body parts he is assembled. He kills a Venezuelan mercenary and an Al-Qaeda leader, for example, but his list of victims grows interminably because each time he avenges someone, that body part falls off and he has to get another to replace it.  And there is an endless supply of body parts because dead bodies litter the streets like rubbish.

However…

Convincing as all this is, the Frankenstein story is framed by the author so that it could all just be an urban legend.  In a city where the fear of suicide bombers causes countless deaths when a crowd stampedes on a bridge, it might be that the Brigadier Majid from the Tracking and Pursuit Department has set it all up to cover for his sinister operations (which appear to include arbitrary arrest, torture and extra-judicial killings).  Hadi is, after all, a known liar; fake tabloid stories in the newspapers are nothing new; and the Final Report of the committee of inquiry at the very beginning of the book casts doubt on the entire story.

The most successful aspect of this novel is the dispassionate way in which daily death and destruction are noted.  The real horror of this novel is the everyday violence, so routine that it’s mentioned in passing as traffic jams:

Nader Shamouni, the deacon, had trouble reaching Elishva’s house.  The Americans had blocked the road at Tayaran Square because of a car bomb close to the Gilani gas station and another explosion in the Sadriya market that had killed dozens of shoppers and shopkeepers.  Nader wanted to get out of his car, but a policeman warned him that he couldn’t park there. (p.198)

The only other book I’ve read by an Iraqi was Walking Free by the refugee surgeon Munjed Al-Muderis, so the vibrancy of the urban settings in Frankenstein in Baghdad was a very powerful contrast to the newsreels we see on TV.  People, somehow, manage to live, laugh, gossip, drink too much, scratch a living and make do in rickety housing despite the constant threat of horrific violence.  While I felt that the book suffered from a surfeit of characters, the overall impression is of a people unbowed, despite it all.  But whether they can ever forgive those who set it all in motion isn’t addressed in this book…

PS Because I was sent a proof copy of this book, I amused myself by comparing some of its passages with those in the final edition which I borrowed from the library.  An editor had taken the red pen to Americanisms like ‘sidewalk’ and ‘candy’, corrected American spelling and substituted adjectives like ‘huge’ for the rather childish ‘big’.  This is a really good example of why I don’t read proof copies… since the publisher is British I would have been puzzling over these aspects of the translation but the editor has thankfully forestalled me!

Author: Ahmed Saadawi
Title: Frankenstein in Baghdad
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright
Publisher: One World,  2018, first published in Arabic in 2013
ISBN: 9781786070609
Source:  Kingston Library.  (Proof copy supplied by Allen & Unwin, but I don’t read proof copies).

Available from Fishpond: Frankenstein in Baghdad

 

 

 


Responses

  1. Was gonna read this book, but I think I’ll pass now. Great review!

  2. I’m going to pass too. I was bored to death by the original (terrible, terrible writing. This poor creature wandering in the Alps with his angst, what a nightmare to read. She was young, I know, I know but to make of it such a literary landmark?)

    Anyway…

    “People, somehow, manage to live, laugh, gossip, drink too much, scratch a living and make do in rickety housing despite the constant threat of horrific violence.”

    This is something I thought when I read Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad (billet available) It helped me understand the complexity of the Lebanese society.

    • That’s interesting. I’ve got a copy of Maryam, Keeper of Stories, which will be the first book from Lebanon that I’ve ever read. Mind you, we have a friend from Lebanon who’s a Christian, and he’s more than forthcoming about the complexities of the Lebanese society!

  3. Haha, synchronicities, eh! I think I’ll pass too.

    I don’t read proof copies either. Hate the fact that I’m not commenting on the real thing, that I can’t quote from it, and am not so anxious to read any book that I can’t wait. I love that you did the comparison. Fascinating.

    • Yes, that’s what I don’t like. Sometimes even the cover is not the right cover either. I want my thoughts, such as they are, to apply to the book that the ordinary consumer buys. And I also hate the way you have to – literally – throw the book out afterwards, into a rubbish bin. It feels like a crime to do that to any book!

  4. As someone that really enjoyed reading this book (and Frankenstein is responsible for my reading passion), I do see where you are coming from. I did enjoy reading your review

    • Hi Michael, this is interesting to hear. What is it that you like about Frankenstein?

      • There is so much to love about Frankenstein. I don’t know where to start. As for Frankenstein in Baghdad, I enjoyed the way the book explores their reality, while trying to challenge the US idea of helping

        • Well, Michael, I’ll have to ask you to do a blog post about it!

          • Plenty of posts about Frankenstein on my blog, but I am working on one for the 200 year anniversary

            • Excellent! Could it be that you have a PhD on Frankenstein?

  5. […] brilliant.) •    Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq), Jonathan Wright, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Oneworld), see my review •    Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Jennifer Croft, Flights (Fitzcarraldo […]


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