Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

“You better find where your body’s gone,” he said, “or else things are going to end badly.”

Hasib was killed in an explosion outside of the hotel he was guarding, and his soul without a body found a body without a soul in which it could dwell.

Elishva, an old woman known an Umm Daniel, or Daniel’s mother, is convinced her son is not dead even though he has never returned from the Iran-Iraq war.

“Get up, Daniel,” she shouts. “Get up, Danny. Come along, my boy.” With these words she has animated the soul of the hotel guard who has inhabited the disparate body parts put together by Hadi, the junk dealer.

Thus Frankenstein in Baghdad comes to life. At first he is called Whatsitsname, and the first murders he commits are those of drunk beggars he doesn’t know whom he arranges in a circle, each with his hands around another’s neck.

He said he tried to avoid them, but they were aggressive and tried to kill him. His horrible face was an incentive for them to attack him. They didn’t know anything about him, but they were driven by that latent hatred that can suddenly come to the surface when people meet someone who doesn’t fit in. p. 125-126

His murders become a means of vengeance. His creator, Hadi, sees the reason he exists as this:

…the Whatsitsname was made up of the body parts of people who had been killed, plus the soul of another victim, and had been given the name of yet another victim. He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace. He was created to obtain revenge on their behalf.” p. 125

Except, with revenge, where does the killing stop? Especially terrible, is that the monster says he’s “the only justice there is in this country.”

Time was my enemy, because there was never enough of it so accomplish my mission, and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.

But the killing had only begun. At least that’s how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”

When he kills an innocent, frightened old man in the street, he arrives at a fresh explanation.

My head was swimming with conflicting thoughts, but I held firm to the idea that I had only hastened the old man’s death. I was not a murderer: I had merely plucked the fruit of death before it fell to the ground. p. 155

Of course the larger picture is of the situation in Baghdad itself, where things more unbelievable than monsters running the streets or people returning from the dead occur.

Dead people had emerged from the dungeons of the security services and non-existent people appeared out of nowhere outside the doors of their relatives’ humble houses. There were people who had returned from long journeys with new names and new identities, women who had spent their childhoods in prison cells and had learned, before anything else in life, the rules and conventions for dealing with the warders. There were people who had survived many deaths in the time of the dictatorship only to find themselves face-to-face with a pointless death in the age of ‘democracy’ – when, for example, a motorbike ran into them in the middle of the road. Believers lost their faith when those who had shared their beliefs and their struggles betrayed them and their principles. Non-believers had become believers when they saw the ‘merits’ and benefits of faith. The strange things that had come to light in the past three years were too many to count. p. 227

So who is to blame for all the evil that has happened in Iraq? Does this monster represent a Shiite extremist? An “agent of foreign powers” as described by the Iraqi government? A man designed by the Americans?

Whoever he is, if only his arrest could actually have stopped the unrest that is in Iraq.

11 thoughts on “Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

    • Yes, it was a clever way indeed for us to picture Baghdad (and extrapolate to Iraq). It was far superior to The Iraqi Christ, which Tony can tell you I loathed. Although, when people say Frankenstein in Baghdad is “darkly humorous” I scratch my head. The whole thing was tragic to me, especially as the mother of a Marine. The suffering that occurred (occurs?) in that God forsaken country is surely not limited to the Iraqi people alone.

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  1. That’s a great line – “I was not a murderer: I had merely plucked the fruit of death before it fell to the ground.” One of my books clubs is going to do a double meeting soon in the book and Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I just recently reread. I’m really looking forward to it

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    • I’m not sure what you mean by a double meeting in the book? This one and Shelley’s Frankenstein? They would be interesting books to compare, read together and discuss, although I felt strangely compassionate toward Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, but not so much this one…he never seemed to have feelings as much as mismatched body parts and rationalizations such as you mentioned at the beginning of your comment. The setting of such a monster in Iraq was creative, but I’m not sure that it worked for me overall.

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      • Sorry, by double meeting I mean we’re reading and discussing both books for that month. The original Frankenstein is short enough we thought we could get away with reading two without starting a revolt. 🙂

        Reading your review of Frankenstein in Baghdad, I realized I was misled by some other people in what the book was, but I am still interested to read it.

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        • Don’t be misled by me, I could have had it all wrong! 😉 I could only write of my impressions, which may differ from all those erudite reviewers.

          I would love to hear YOUR thoughts, and those of your book club’s, when you finish. I think it will be a fascinating discussion. And probably compassion for either monster won’t even enter into it; I have an exceptionally soft heart.

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  2. I I am finally going the rounds of blogs and reading what bloggers think of the Int’l Booker Prize list. It is curious that “F in Iraq” has been published the same year of the Frankenstein bicentenary. I prob should reread the original; this sounds very violente!

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