Having caught up on the literary excursions I made before the announcement of this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist (see Part One and Part Two of my round-up posts for details), it’s time to set off on my journey in earnest. There’ll be nine more excursions before we reach the end of our travels in translated fiction, and the road will take us around the globe, with stops in Europe, Asia and South America. However, today’s first leg of the journey sees us arriving in the Middle East, unfortunately at a rather inopportune time. We must tread very carefully lest we attract the attention of rival forces, and the threat of explosions is ever-present. What’s worse is that there’s another danger out there, and this one can’t be stopped by conventional means. Please be careful…
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
– Oneworld Publications, translated by Jonathan Wright
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Shortly after the Americans have occupied Iraq, the capital is still a chaotic place to live in, and explosions are a daily occurrence. When Hadi, a junk dealer, learns that his business partner has become one of the latest casualties of the violence, he attempts to find and bury his body, only to be told to take something from the random pile of body parts. Something snaps inside, and he begins to construct his own corpse from body parts he finds on the street:
The area where the nose should have been was badly disfigured, as if a wild animal had bitten a chunk out of it. Hadi opened the canvas sack and took out the thing. In recent days he had spent hours looking for a fresh one like it, yet he was still uneasy handling it. It was a fresh nose, still coated in congealed, dark red blood. His hand trembling, he positioned it in the black hole in the corpse’s face. It was a perfect fit, as if the corpse had its own nose back.
p.26 (Oneworld Publications, 2018)
It’s only now that Hadi comes to his senses and realises that what he’s done is unlikely to be a good idea.
However, before he can do anything about it, fate intervenes. After the life of a young security guard is taken by yet another suicide bomber, the young man’s soul drifts around looking for a body to rest in, and when he comes across Hadi’s collection of body parts, he makes it his new home. When the junk dealer awakes, he finds that the corpse has gone, but there’ll be plenty more before the story reaches its close.
I’m sure I’m not the only reader to have been slightly hesitant to pick up Frankenstein in Baghdad. Zombie novels aren’t really my preferred genre, and I had my doubts as to how much I’d enjoy a story following a monster around the Iraqi capital. Of course, there’s far more to Saadawi’s work than that, though, and while the enigmatic Whatsitsname (as Hadi dubs him) is a focal point, the writer is just as interested in taking a wider view of Iraq’s post-invasion society and explaining that there’s far more to fear than a figure with a stitched-up face.
The story follows several key characters apart from Hadi, including Elishva, a lonely widow who believes the creature is her long-missing son, and Mahmoud, a tenacious journalist investigating the appearance of Hadi’s creation. In the background, there’s a shadowy government force, the Tracking and Pursuit Department, which has expanded its limited brief to using astrologers to help predict when and where suicide bombers will strike. As the novel progresses, the department senses that a new series of gruesome murders are down to one ‘man’ alone – and they’re determined to track ‘him’ down.
The centre of the story, though, is Whatsitsname, and through encounters with the creature’s creator and a recording it makes in an attempt to justify itself, we learn why it’s determined to track down and kill people. Each of the parts that make up his body is thirsting for revenge, and the creature will gain no peace until its murderers have been paid back in kind. However, each time this happens, the body part in question simply melts away, leaving Whatsitsname to replace it – which only adds to the list of people to take vengeance upon.
There’s a clear allegorical nature to Hadi’s creation, and the junk dealer very quickly realises the truth:
But Hadi adhered to a more imaginative formula – that the Whatsitsname was made up of the body parts of people who had been killed, plus the soul of another victim, and had been given the name of yet another victim. He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace. He was created to obtain revenge on their behalf. (p.130)
The ‘monster’ is nothing less than a representative of the Iraqi people, and in a country where justice is hard to come by, you have to take it where you can. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of people willing to throw their weight behind Whatitsname – faith is plural here, meaning there’s always room for one more saviour.
The style of Frankenstein in Baghdad is interesting, with sections focusing on different characters allowing us to see events from multiple viewpoints, causing the story to spiral around and examine matters in more detail. There are stories within stories, including the self-interview, magazine articles and lengthy, rambling tales told to disbelieving audiences at the local coffee shop:
Hadi’s listeners were completely wrapped up in the story. New listeners risked missing the pleasures of the story if they insisted on challenging it right from the start. The logical objections were usually left to the end, and no one interfered with the way the story was told or with the subplots Hadi went into. (p.27)
That’s certainly a sensible approach to take, and one I’d recommend to all readers of Saadawi’s novel 🙂
Overall, Frankenstein in Baghdad is an entertaining and thought-provoking work, well written and translated (I’ve tried Wright’s work several times, and it’s always been enjoyable), and probably one of the more approachable books on the longlist. Less than a horror story, it’s a novel examining the nature of revenge, and the difficulty involved in separating the criminals from the good guys. The truth is that, like Whatsitsname himself, all societies are made up of good and evil in differing proportions. If you try to rip out the malignant elements, you might only succeed in tearing yourself apart…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I enjoyed Frankenstein in Baghdad, and it certainly deserves its place on the longlist, along with the praise it’s received in recent months. However, a work like this has a very difficult balancing act to perform between the ‘story’ (i.e. the actions of Whatsitsname) and the commentary on the wider social issues. I’m not convinced that the novel always manages to keep that balance, and there were times, particularly around two-thirds of the way through, when I felt that the story wasn’t quite holding together in the way it does at the start and finish. I suspect that this will be one that just misses out on my top six, but it’s still a very good novel 🙂
Will it make the shortlist?
It’s very possible that the judges will regard this more highly than I did, particularly for its depiction of people navigating a chaotic society. Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ took out the IFFP in 2014, and for me this is a far more impressive take on post-invasion Iraq. I’m not sure how well Saadawi’s novel will stand up to a second reading, but if I were a betting man, I could think of worse books to have a punt on for the shortlist.
A little shaken, but otherwise unscathed, it’s time for us to leave Baghdad behind and head off to Paris, swapping signs of conflict for signs in general. A man has died, with foul play suspected, and only two people are up to the task of working out why: a grumpy policeman and… a linguistics professor?
No, me neither – see you in France 😉