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Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed SaadawiUK edition5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsOne of the oldest themes that has been explored all throughout history, not only by writers, but philosophers, clergymen, politicians, and just plain old regular folks trying to get by, is that violence begets violence. And nowhere can the cycle be seen with greater clarity than in the world’s most war-torn areas. Iraqi author and documentary filmmaker Ahmed Saadawi gives the theme one of its most trenchant contemporary workouts in Frankenstein in Baghdad, a taut little fever dream of a novel that combines gory horror with scathing political satire to create something unique, funny, bloody and brilliant. The book made Saadawi the first Iraqi winner of the International Prize for Arabic fiction in 2014. The U.S. edition, translated by Jonathan Wright, appeared early in 2018.

The story is written in something of a documentary style, and so when we read Saadawi’s vivid evocations of Baghdad in the mid-2000s, in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s execution and while the country was still under heavy U.S. occupation, the narrative has a you-are-there quality that’s truly journalistic. Baghdad here is a city of unpredictable terrorist explosions and the incessant sound of Coalition helicopters in the skies, but it’s also a city of colorful people, busy coffeehouses, old hotels getting by on rattling diesel generators. It’s a city where predatory realtors are eager to snap up and profit off the properties of displaced citizens. And it’s a city where the privileged have been able to hold on to their creature comforts.

Hadi is an old junk dealer with a reputation for spinning wild bullshit stories in his favorite coffeehouse for the amusement of whomever cares to hang out and listen. In addition to collected broken old radios and furniture for salvage and repair, he has begun collecting body parts from the rubble of car bombings and the like. Not only that, but he has, for reasons that I suppose make sense to himself, begun stitching these blasted limbs and other bits together into a whole body, an act, he believes, of respect for the dead. He calls his morbid creation the Whatsitsname. What he never expects is for this patchwork corpse to get up one day and wander off.

It happens when the displaced soul of a hotel guard killed by a truck bombing inhabits the body. So we’re getting a bit more of a magical approach to reanimation here, rather than Mary Shelley’s mad science. These ghosts, we are told, are called “familiars of fear,” the restless spirits of people unjustly killed by violence. Many of them simply hover all throughout the city, looking for human bodies, even living ones, to inhabit for a while. When the hotel guard enters the body, the body is then brought to life by Hadi’s neighbor Elishva, an elderly widow whom most people consider a madwoman. Elishva has never given up hoping and praying that she will once again see her son Daniel, who was presumed killed 20 years earlier in the Iran-Iraq War. Seeing the body lying on Hadi’s table, Elishva simply addresses it as Daniel and invites it into her home, dressing in some of her son’s old clothes. But Daniel, or the Whatsitsname, is soon stalking the city.

We are quickly propelled into a mordant and, I must admit, often darkly humorous morality tale. The creature sees itself as an avenging spirit, out to kill all the criminals — among them al Qaeda, or supporters of the old regime — who target the innocent. As bizarre murders begin occurring around the city and coming to the attention of both Iraqi and American military police, an ambitious young journalist, Mahmoud, tracks down Hadi and convinces the old charlatan to get an interview from the Whatsitsname for his magazine. We learn, from the creature’s own words, how an initial assurance in its own self-proclaimed mission is running up against unexpected moral complexities.

At first, the Whatsitsname is confident in its own righteousness. It’s careful to explain that it sees itself as a defender of the people, only seeking vengeance against the evil men whose crimes created the blown-apart body parts it’s comprised of. Given the parts of multiple victims, inhabited by the soul of another victim, and given the name of yet another victim, the Whatsitsname seeks violent retribution and justice for all victims of terrorism and war.

But this illusion of purity of purpose soon crumbles. The Whatsitsname begins attracting a group of fanatical followers, one of whom points out that very few people are entirely without moral blemish. A victim can also be a criminal in other ways. Furthermore, the Whatsitsname is discovering its body is beginning to fall apart. As one person is avenged whom the creature owns parts from, that bit finally decays and drops off, and so the Whatsitsname has to start acquiring new parts to replace the old ones, if it wants to stay ambulatory long enough to complete its goals. But then the new body parts require their own avenging, and so on and so on. And then what happens when the Whatsitsname discovers that more of its replacement parts have come from the bodies of criminals than the innocent? Won’t its entire nature undergo a major shift towards the malevolence it thinks it’s fighting? Things don’t get any better when, inevitably, the followers of the Whatsitsname, some of whom revere the creature like any other mob of cultists, split into their own factions and start fighting each other. Who’s innocent now?

Frankenstein in Baghdad is some of the sharpest satire you’re going to find targeting the sectarian and political madness that Iraq has been plunged into in the wake of the 2003 invasion. But it’s also a gentle novel when it needs to be, with its compassion for characters like Elishva, the widows and mothers of men who were whisked away to war and whose fates are often unknown. And it’s very funny when lampooning the government. It turns out that there’s a kind of X-Files branch called the Tracking and Pursuit Department, which employs astrologers and investigates local urban legends, led by a brigadier who’s constantly frustrated his work isn’t really taken seriously, never getting the proper credit when he turns up something useful.

To be honest, it’s less accurate to regard Frankenstein in Baghdad as a horror novel than a work of literary political satire given a rich and bloody fantasy/horror glaze. But it’s a bold and observant book that shines its own caustic light upon the plight of a country and a culture that, like the creature in the story, has been pulled into pieces over and over, and never quite put back together again.