Two-hundred years on from the publication of Mary Shelley's masterpiece Frankenstein comes the long-awaited English translation of Ahmed Saadawi's ingenious allegory Frankenstein in Baghdad.
A worthy winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the novel recreates the carnage and lawlessness of the civil-war ravaged Iraqi capital in 2005, but it raises the stakes and doubles the impact by adding to the usual suspects a man-made killing machine hell-bent on revenge.
The novel is an ensemble piece with a rotating cast and kaleidoscopic points of view.
Saadawi begins by introducing Elishva, an elderly Assyrian Christian widow, who like every other character in the book lives in “a troubled city where the demons had broken out of their dungeons and come to the surface all at once”. Some of her neighbours believe she is a crazy old woman; others think she is a protective shield, warding off evil with her spiritual powers.
Two grubby schemers would like to see her vacate the seven-room house that is too large for her. Faraj, a small-time, no-good realtor, notorious for appropriating homes and shops left vacant by occupants afraid of marauding gangs, piles pressure on Elishva to up sticks. Hadi, a surly and dishevelled junk dealer, pesters her to part with her antiques. Despite their attempts to wear her down, Elishva holds her ground, rejects their offers and regards both men as “two greedy people with tainted souls, like cheap carpets with permanent ink stains”.
When not preying on the vulnerable, Hadi spends his time drinking or telling stories to a captive audience in the coffee shop of Aziz the Egyptian. But Hadi has another pursuit. In his shed he busies himself assembling a human corpse made up of the body parts – and the souls – of people killed in recent explosions.
Once animated, the fearsome and seemingly invincible “Whatsitsname” breaks out and embarks on a murderous rampage.
Characters that have been shadowy or quiet up to this point now reassert themselves and demonstrate their potential or their purpose. Mahmoud, a young, go-getting journalist, realises he has a scoop of a story and doggedly follows the trail of violence. Brigadier Majid, director of a special information unit set up by the Americans, attempts to track down the monster responsible for the current killing spree.
Other characters react differently to the bogeyman. Elishva embraces him, adamant that it is Daniel, the son who never returned from the Iran-Iraq war 20 years ago.
Hadi is more cautious, worrying in case his terrifying, putrefying creation will eventually come for his creator.
Baghdad-born writer and poet Saadawi has written a haunting hymn to his city, one suffused with horror, dark humour and the most bizarre flights of fancy. This is a novel full of tall tales, talking pictures and the walking dead. Majid’s mysterious Tracking and Pursuit Department recruits soothsayers, fortune tellers and analysts in parapsychology to commune with spirits and djinn, and to investigate strange crimes, legends and superstitious rumours. And then there is the hideous Whatsitsname, a composite of victims, a fiend that constantly needs new human flesh to survive.
“They’re accusing me of committing crimes,” he tells Hadi, “but what they don’t understand is that I’m the only justice there is in this country.”
Saadawi isn't the first author to depict modern conflict in the Middle East by way of a radical reinterpretation of a 19th-century text from the western canon. Atiq Rahimi's A Curse on Dostoevsky offered an original portrait of crisis-hit Kabul through a shrewdly reimagined Crime and Punishment.
Frankenstein in Baghdad sees Saadawi not so much broadly channelling Shelley's novel as lightly cherry-picking key elements for his own repurposing. Gone are Shelley's Romantic elements and themes of prejudice and isolation ("I am malicious because I am miserable," wailed the original lonely monster as he pleaded for a companion). Instead, Saadawi ratchets up the Gothic to a macabre level and trades theme for metaphor. "Frankenstein in this novel is a condensed symbol of Iraq's current problems," Saadawi has explained in interview.
Thankfully, the book is more than just scattershot blood-and-guts mayhem. The many outlandish episodes are redolent of the surreal antics that punctuate Gogol’s fiction, while the bilious comedy is the same potent brand as that of fellow Iraqi novelist Hassan Blasim. At regular intervals, Saadawi’s characters will say or do something that provokes or gives us pause for thought. As the Whatsitsname is composed of body parts of people from different ethnicities, tribes and classes – “the impossible mix that was never achieved in the past” – could he therefore be “the first true Iraqi citizen”? Is Hadi, the restyled Victor Frankenstein, responsible for his creation’s foul deeds or is he a mere conduit, “a surgical glove that Fate put on its hand to move pawns on the chessboard of life”? And are there really “no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal”?
Again and again, Saadawi thinks big and casts wide. The result is that his hugely engaging and richly satisfying novel feels far more than the sum of its parts. However, in places, he veers close to giving us too much. That free-ranging inventiveness can take the form of unchecked manic exuberance. Those individual plot strands are at times entangled or
Perhaps the book’s largest component is its cast. We get a welcome list of characters which encompasses the main players but also a lot of bit-parters: janitors, barbers, drivers, prostitutes, priests, neighbours, film directors and business partners. Elishva settles a score and kills one of the above with a pair of scissors; Mahmoud falls in love with one of the others. The
rest either add colour or clog the narrative. When Saadawi cuts back and gets the balance right, then his novel works wonders. Jonathan Wright’s expert translation conveys Saadawi’s sense of drama and stasis, fine-grained brutality and dreamlike absurdity. This isn’t a novel for the faint-hearted, but it is one that tells a vital story in a masterful way.