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It is two centuries since Mary Shelley’s reanimated monster drifted into the darkness on an ice floe. In this surreal, visceral and mordant novel by Iraqi author and film-maker Ahmed Saadawi, the winner of the 2014 International prize for Arabic fiction, we meet his 21st-century cousin, who would certainly have much to say to Frankenstein’s creature were they to meet on the dissecting table.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is set in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. Baghdad seems somehow both ordinary and extraordinary: it is a city where journalists and government officials might meet at the Novotel and deplore the state of things, and where one must decide whether bus or taxi offers the quickest route to the office at rush hour; but it is also a city in which men take canvas sacks to the sites of explosions and collect the detritus of passers-by blown into bits.
Hadi, a disreputable old junk-dealer, finds a nose on the street and takes it home to his shed. There, among the bits of furniture and broken kitchen units that are his trade, lies “the body of a naked man, with viscous liquids, light in colour, oozing from parts of it”. This was a nameless victim of sectarian violence, retrieved from the Baghdad streets by Hadi, who cannot countenance the idea of hasty burials of corpses that are incomplete. The body’s face is a ruin: “Where the nose should have been [it] was badly disfigured, as if a wild animal had bitten a chunk out of it.” Hadi carefully stitches a new nose in place, and later – telling the tale to his friends, who receive it quite placidly, as another of the old man’s shaggy dog stories – says: “I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as rubbish, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.” He calls it Whatsitsname.
At this point the reader is poised, like Hadi’s listeners, between fact and fantasy: is this a sober novel about the trauma of war, or are we to see the sutured corpse slip from the table and lurch off into the night? Saadawi – with absolute narrative authority – takes a turn for the fantastic when a security guard is killed by an exploding truck. There is a scene reminiscent of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo in which the baffled soul of the guard, unable to locate more of his own corpse than a pair of smoking boots and uncertain of the protocol, heads to the cemetery for some advice. Here the spirit of a teenage boy advises him to find a body sharpish, “or else things are going to go badly”. In due course the soul finds Whatsitsname inanimate on Hadi’s table, and slips “inside the corpse, filling it from head to toe”. When Hadi wakes, his creation has gone.
What ensues is an acute portrait of Middle Eastern sectarianism and geopolitical ineptitude, an absurdist morality fable, and a horror fantasy. Whatsitsname, possessed with righteous fury, sets about killing those who have had a hand in making Baghdad a slaughterhouse. The authorities are concerned: who could have been responsible for leaving four men dead on a street corner, each having seemingly strangled the other? A large cast is sucked into Whatsitsname’s ambit: old Elishva, who has never recovered from the death of her son, and welcomes Whatsitsname into her home in his stead; Faraj the estate agent, who has an eye on Elishva’s property; Mahmoud al-Sawadhi, an ambitious journalist; and various military officials, cafe proprietors, sex workers and neighbours. As his body begins to disintegrate, Whatsitsname makes repeat visits to Hadi’s shed, requiring an arm here, or a section of cheek there; in time he acquires acolytes willing to sacrifice themselves so that he might have, for instance, a new pair of hands with which to murder.
Saadawi stitches the narrative together from so many points of view and points in time, one often overlapping the other, that the tension has a tendency to dissipate. But this is in keeping with the novel’s open preoccupation with war’s absurdity. 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, and how an email composed at a military desk leads in time to a young man with a packed lunch in his pocket blown into little more than a scarlet mist, and nothing comes of it. And as Whatsitsname finds as he walks about the streets, disintegrating and dispensing justice: “There are no innocents who are completely innocent, and no criminals who are completely criminal … every criminal he had killed was also a victim.”
Because of this – and, perhaps, because of the affectless and matter-of-fact tone of Jonathan Wright’s translation – the novel ultimately evokes Kafka more than Shelley. Certainly there are elements of the gothic in the book’s visceral treatment of the body, and in its themes of justice and transgression, but Saadawi is less concerned with arousing sensations of horror than with capturing war and its aftermath as something pointless and surreal. One can turn to Keith Douglas’s second world war poetry or Kevin Powers’ Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds for conflict’s pity and terror. Here, we have instead what amounts to an appalled and baffled shake of the head; an invitation to consider whether a reanimated corpse shedding putrefying flesh on the pavements of Baghdad is any less credible than dispatches in the world’s press.
Incidentally, a fantasy novel by an Iraqi novelist usefully addresses a few of the questions currently troubling the literary establishment. What is literary fiction? Nobody knows. Is genre fiction in some way inferior to literary fiction? Well, of course not. Ought writers to write about cultures and identities alien to their own? Writers can do as they please, so long as they are prepared to risk making a ham-fisted effort of it, compared with voices minutely attuned to place, lexis, manners and mores (occasionally I imagined this novel written by a western writer, and winced at the likely outcome). Can “mere” genre fiction deal with matters of urgent political and social import? Naturally it can, as we find in centuries of literature, from Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World to Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus.
Saadawi’s strange, violent and wickedly funny book borrows heavily from the science fiction canon, and pays back the debt with interest: it is a remarkable achievement, and one that, regrettably, is unlikely ever to lose its urgent relevancy.
- Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Oneworld Publications, £12.99). To order a copy for £11.04, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian
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