Frankenstein in Baghdad
By Ahmed Saadawi
English Translation Published January 2018 (Penguin) (original March 2013)
I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this one. Frankenstein in Baghdad feels a lot more like literary fiction than genre fiction, and has won the International Prize for Arab Fiction. It is exactly what it says on the tin: a re-animated corpse roaming the streets of Baghdad. The description made me think I was going to get a horror story, but instead I got a fascinating look at fragments of life in U.S occupied Iraq. Sometimes, it didn’t even feel like the monster was the main part. We get to read about an old woman whose son has been missing for years, a reporter who wants to be like his shady boss, a government official who used mystics to catch criminals, a local hobo who made a reanimated corpse, and some real estate stuff.
In Baghdad, car bombs are a regular occurrence. The monster in this story was made from the severed body parts of bomb victims, with the intention being to give the recreated corpse a proper burial. Instead the creature gains a soul and goes out seeking revenge on behalf of all the people that make up his body. There is a segment in the middle where the corpse – called the Whatshisname – narrates his mission and struggles which I found engrossing. Every time he gets closer to his goal of gaining vengeance for all the victims that make him, parts of his body begin to rot, so he must find replacement body parts, which in turn force him to avenge more deaths. The quest for revenge is shown to be futile, only bringing more death.
Saadawi has captured the violence and fear in Baghdad, but has also provided us with an insightful, sometimes even funny look at the lives of the people living there. The way everything in this book fits together is surreal and unexpected. A bit like the Whatshisname I suppose. Unfortunately, there were some characters and stories that just didn’t interest me, and some parts of the book I felt like I was working through the story, rather than sitting back and enjoying it.
All in all, this book didn’t really do it for me, but I can’t think of any major reasons why not. Maybe I just needed something more speculative and less literary. Or my lack of knowledge of Iraqi culture meant most of the satire flew over my head. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a unique look on the Iraq war that touches on many different aspects of how war and violence impact people’s lives. But at the time I read this, I just could not get into it. A good book, but I guess just not the sort of story I was looking for right now. Maybe I’ll read it again in a few years and see how my thoughts have changed.