Frankenstein in Baghdad
I don't think I've ever read Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, the 1818 science fiction book. Of course, I know the story: the mad scientist who creates a monster. The character is ubiquitous, and the tale has been told and re-told in many different mediums. But that's what makes Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad all the more amazing. Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (2014), Saadawi's story focuses on the traumatic aftermath of war and occupation, how violence leads to more violence, and how no one is truly innocent.
I first read an excerpt on LitHub (you can read it here) that made me want to read the novel, but the basic premise is as follows: a junk collector, named Hadi, lives in a bombed-out part of Baghdad. He starts to bring home pieces of bomb victims he finds on the street, and sews them together. Creating a whole Iraqi victim (As the Whatitsname thinks to itself, "Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds — ethnicities, tribes, races and social classes — I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen.”) The sewed-together creation is animated by a hotel guard who dies in a car bombing. The Whatsitsname begins to haunt Baghdad looking for revenge for all the people who make up his body. Once he gets revenge, the body part disappears. And so it is replaced, and the violent cycle continues. But the story does not just focus on Hadi and this creation; it weaves perspectives of a local police chief, of astrologers, of writers, and every day inhabitants of Baghdad. And Saadawi "draws us into what would otherwise seem like a magical-realist world of walking corpses, astrologers, and wandering souls; except that the daily car bombs, American soldiers, and missing family members have warped “reality” such that almost anything seems possible in Baghdad in 2005."
It's a surrealist take on the American Occupation of Iraq, and Americans rarely factor into the story. There's a lot of dark humor, as "Saadawi is less concerned with arousing sensations of horror than with capturing war and its aftermath as something pointless and surreal." As Dwight Gardner writes in NYT Book Review, "What happened in Iraq was a spiritual disaster, and this brave and ingenious novel takes that idea and uncorks all its possible meanings." Finishing the story left me feeling unsettled, but not unhappy.
Instead of viewing the American Occupation of Iraq through the lens of American/Western writers, this is a distinctly Iraqi tale. Saadawi focuses on the problems affecting the day to day life of Iraqis. A must-read.