It’s almost a decade since Ahmed Saadawi wrote and published Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013). Yet with its English translation by Jonathan Wright only published in 2018, its impact has been felt belatedly in many Anglo-centric literary circles. One can’t help but wonder at the conjunction of the novel’s publication with the two hundredth anniversary of its predecessor. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published in 1818, and it’s tempting to think that the introduction of English-speaking readers to Frankenstein in Baghdad was deliberately timed, however unlikely that may be. In any event, Saadawi’s novel functions not only as a fascinating retelling, but also as a darkly funny and moving story about war, loss, and vengeful bodies.
With the U.S. invasion of Iraq – and its fraught, chaotic aftermath – as its backdrop, Frankenstein in Baghdad begins with a bang. Literally: as a bomb explodes near Tayaran Square it counterintuitively draws together our central cast, from an elderly woman clinging to the disparate threads of her old life and her memories of her missing son, to an investigative journalist whose highly publicised article also functions as the title of the novel. Among these we find Hadi, a wandering junk dealer who begins to scavenge body parts in the aftermath of these daily explosions. One day he decides to stitch these pieces together, feeling that each victim deserves a proper burial in a complete, or mostly complete, body. And in the dead of night, during one the novel’s most engrossing scenes, a wandering soul locates Hadi’s creation and decides to inhabit the body. When Hadi wakes, he finds his creation gone, and the city around him soon unfolds as a stage upon which the so called “Whatsitsname” can act out its revenge on behalf of every person whose body makes up part of his own.
The narrative is as disjointed and patchwork as its monster, with a large cast of characters and a multitude of perspective that bleed into one another, with stories embedded within other stories and information disseminated, scattered across the pages like disjointed limbs. It evokes not only the body of Whatsitsname, with a multitude of voices all clamouring for individual justice, but also the disarray of time and space during wartime. It can often be, by design, difficult to follow, difficult to decide whether events have really taken place or become distorted by delusion or rumour. But as Sarah Perry writes in her Guardian review: “It shows how the diligent military historian must go back along an endless causal chain involving tribalism, folly, venality, poorly conceived strategies, corruption, malpractice and pride […]” If Whatsitsname can be understood as one such military historian, he is one for whom the historical context cannot be divorced from its human cost, cannot be broken down into sterile statistics or isolated incidentals. It is perpetually bound up with anger, loss, and life, and each destructive event incites a spiral of ongoing violence and trauma that becomes almost impossible to unravel.
Indeed, one of the novel’s standout passages comes when the creature provides a recorded interview to our journalist, Mahmoud, who is at once repulsed and awestruck as he listens to the account of Whatsitsname’s strange existence unfurl. The monster describes a state in which ‘the prayers of the victims and their families’ animate each of his individual parts and inescapably compel him to answer their longings for “an end to injustice and […] revenge on the guilty.” As each person is avenged, their body parts begin to rot and drop off the Whatsitsname’s complete body. In order to continue seeking gratification for the remaining unavenged, the creature must continue to replace his decaying parts with those of the newly dead. But the Whatsitsname is confronted with his own moral dilemma when he discovers his ever-changing body is partially made up of the “criminals” he has sworn to destroy, and that his own righteous quest can lead to the murder of innocents. Here, the true horrors of war are unveiled: the perpetuation of violence, revenge, and retaliation can only lead to further loss, trauma, and the interminable continuation of conflict across nations, identities, and desires.
The inclusion of astrologers, fortune tellers, and djinn as part of the official Tracking and Pursuit Department at once lends a mysticism to the institution and a certain legitimacy to the arcane. In this vision of Baghdad strangeness has become commonplace: prophets quibble over monsters and tarot readers dictate the course of a criminal pursuit. Not only does this lend the story an alluring, magical realism-esque aura, it also speaks to the sense that old traditions are, in the wake of tragedy, valued far beyond long-standing, bureaucratic institutions, just as chaos comes to dominate the city of Baghdad. There is no order to be found here, only a disarray that the city’s remaining residents cannot hope to control, but must instead learn to inhabit.
Such a novel, it seems, could not feel more poignant than at this time. Amid the swathes of disinformation, and the subsequent endurance of misinformation, that populate online forums and sometimes infiltrate news publications, Frankenstein in Baghdad functions as both a sharp critique of modern epistemology and a cutting-edge reworking of a classic horror tale in which guilt and innocence become intertwined. There are many ghosts within the pages of this novel, and though we may recognise that of Mary Shelley, there are abundantly more whose names remain lost to us, with Saadawi’s novel as a testament to their stories.