Set in the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, “Frankenstein in Baghdad” portrays a city disintegrating under the strain of sectarian violence and dodgy leadership as the national military and American forces unevenly strive to establish order. Buildings are crumbling, families are moving out of the country and, after a junk dealer stitches together the body parts of bomb victims, this newly formed monster sets out on a killing rampage. I read this novel because it’s on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. It’s particularly fascinating for me reading this modern reimagining of Frankenstein after having so recently read Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It’s notable how the novels are framed in a similar way. Shelley’s novel is a story about an explorer recording a dying doctor’s dramatic supernatural story. Saadawi similarly creates a story within a story about a man who wrote a novel after listening to the outrageous story he hears on a recording device. The way both Shelley and Saadawi’s novels are structured remove the reader slightly from the obviously fantastical elements of their stories and turn them into something more symbolic. Where Shelley concentrated more on themes of science and ambition, Saadawi is more concerned with creating a powerful message about the perpetual violence which is steadily destroying a great historic city.
One of the things which makes this novel so wonderfully engaging is its intricate and fascinating depiction of a community populated by quirky individuals. There’s a pious old lady who lives with a mangy cat and who is dismissed by many in the community as crazy. Her family, estate agents, furniture salesman and even a government housing project are trying to convince her to sell her stately home stuffed with antique furniture and art, but she stubbornly stays in place waiting for the return of her son who was probably lost in battle many years ago. There’s an ambitious journalist who finds himself inducted into high society and introduced to powerful government officials after a recent promotion. Amidst these newfound rings of privileged knowledge and covert dealings he finds it difficult to know who to trust. There’s an astrologer with many faces who advises a dodgy government agency about likely future acts of violence occurring in the city. It all builds to a complex portrait of a community beleaguered by unclear leadership and beset by perpetual random acts of violence.
This is what makes the undead patchwork monster or “Whatsitsname” so poignant as he’s an amalgam of all the vengeful feeling and backstabbing which is utterly destroying this city. At first his mission to avenge the deaths of all the victims he’s made up from has a clear plan of action. But, as time goes on, he understands his existence can’t persist without adding new pieces to himself whether they are hapless victims or not. The notion of innocent and guilty becomes very muddled – just as it is for any person of a particular nationality whose country has been embroiled in a complicated history of political battles and religious strife. This figure of a mythic rampaging monster who can’t be killed becomes a poignant symbol of ever-present spirit of violence which lurks in the shadowy corners of our society. This is a highly perceptive, original and strong novel.