International Man Booker 2018 Review #2: ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ by Ahmed Saadawi – Anyone Have a Spare Nose?

Frankenstein in Baghdad is a mish-mash, in almost every way.

 Not only does it feature a Frankenstein’s monster made up of body parts, it’s a story that involves lots of different people, and means lots of different things.

You could read it as a comedy, a tragedy, an absurdist puppet show, a political satire, a commentary on the madness of war and the state of modern Iraq. But really you should read it as all of them.

It’s a novel structured out of lots of disparate parts, each sewn together to make one not entirely harmonious whole … you see where I’m heading with this?

 As the title suggests, there is a Frankenstein’s monster, but it’s very different from Mary Shelley’s original.

This one is born just after the American invasion of Iraq and is put together by Hadi, a junk dealer of ill repute who collects the various body parts from the streets. There is no shortage of these, as car bombs go off every day in the Iraqi capital, leaving gory mementoes of former lives scattered on the road.

Hadi, seeing that the leftover remains are often washed away with no more respect than rubbish, begins to collect them and sew them together with the aim that, if they are all part of a whole body, they will be buried in a dignified manner.

Unfortunately, when a security guard is killed in a suicide bombing, his wandering soul has no body to go back to. Luckily for him, there’s now a body without a soul for him to match up with…

Bits and pieces

Frankenstein in Baghdad has a particularly dark sense of humour. There are plenty of funny bits here, but it’s all rooted in the horrors of war.

 Hadi – you will not be surprised to hear – is himself a mish-mash of a character; on the one hand, he seems to be there for comic relief, with his hare-brained plan to reunite body parts, his love of a glass of arak and his penchant for telling far-fetched stories.

 On the other, he seems alone in his conviction that the victims of these explosions should be afforded a decent burial, a noble conviction for which he suffers greatly – either from visits from his creation, or the state police. All the while, his monster is on a mission of his own.

 As they become convinced that the monster is up to no good, the police begin closing the net, and soon they come a-knocking on Hadi’s door. Having already been blown up several times, the junk dealer is now subject to a dreadful beating and the robbery of all of his prized possessions.

A cross-section of characters

There are lots of protagonists who each have their own story, from Hadi to Elishva, his neighbour who is convinced that her son Daniel (disappeared in the first gulf war) will return from the dead, to the estate agent hankering after her house, to the owner of the Orouba hotel opposite, to Mahmoud the journalist chasing down the monster’s story, to his boss, to his boss’s girlfriend….

 There is a dramatis personae at the start of the book which helps a bit with this – but overall the effect is like being dropped in the middle of a heaving marketplace with everyone vying for your attention. It’s easy to get lost.

 All the characters are linked by their interaction with the monster, and with their location on one street in the Bataween district. But they all experience the war in a different way, and it’s almost always absurdist.

Short-sighted Elishva, for example, is convinced that the monster is actually her son – despite the monster being a rotting corpse made up of just about everybody except her son.

Even so, she is simply determined to believe that her prayers to St George have been answered and that there is some mad hope left in the midst of all the chaos.

Not much of Mary Shelley

The monster of Frankenstein in Baghdad is called ‘Whatitsname’.

While he does like the sound of his own voice – as evidenced by the ten hours’ worth of interview material it provides to the Mahmoud the journalist via digital recorder – he isn’t prone to philosophising about life and the nature of existence, as Shelley’s original is, nor does he have a vendetta against his creator.

Instead he sees his existential purpose as exacting revenge on the people whose actions resulted in the sudden availability of his various body parts; for example, the bombers who blew his ‘contributors’ up, or the leaders of their ideological factions. He believes that when his work is done, he will be able to rest.

The trouble is, he’s decomposing, and continually having to replace his body parts, meaning his list of victims grows ever longer… and so does his mission.

The meaning of the monster

Hopping about from character to character and from story to story does make this novel confusing at times, and also tends to slow down the pace.

We move from the monster’s nefarious plans and snatching of body parts to the estate agent’s plans to get hold of Elishva’s house, for example. Or from a car bomb exploding to the journalist pining after his boss’s girlfriend.

The lack of a single-minded narrative throws Frankenstein in Baghdad open to lots of possible interpretations.

For me, the ‘Whatsitsname’ is an uncomfortable reminder that a war is going on, even as the cast of characters go on leading their ‘normal’ lives – with all the strangeness that naturally entails in a war zone.

He represents a collective, imagined desire for vengeance coming from all the disappeared or vaporised victims who will never be avenged.

But he also represents a resolution of tragedy that we as humans are always desperate for.

The return of the missing son we don’t know what happened to. The rightful burial for all the people who didn’t get one. A manifestation of the absurd side of war that is impossible for our brains to compute, a walking, talking recognition that the idea of war, of humans killing each other for reasons that aren’t clear to any of them, is madness. In this case, madness personified.

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Pick up a copy of Frankenstein in Baghdad from Amazon.

 Next up: ‘Flights’ by Olga Tokarczuk

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