Frankenstein in Baghdad (novel) by Ahmed Saadawi
English Publication History: Frankenstein in Baghdad (Penguin, 2018; Oneworld Publications, 2018)
Original: Arabic [Iraq] (فرانكشتاين في بغداد , 2013)
Translated by Jonathan Wright, 2018
Frame of Mind: On 20 March 2003, allied forces invaded Iraq. Nearly forty days later, President Bush held his Mission Accomplished speech. When this novel was written, it was ten years after this so-called Accomplishment. One must ponder: Who was the mission for? What exactly did the mission accomplish? Now fifteen years after the invasion, still, what has been accomplished? Was there ever a clear mission?
Synopsis: Fear is the fuel that keeps the terrorists running; the more the citizens cower in fear, the stronger the hold of power rests in the deluded minds. The weapon of choice: suicide bombs, each with a face, a personality, a family, a history… and afterwards, with victims. Some die by concussion, incineration, shrapnel wounds, sudden impact of collapsing building, in stampedes… “six million ways to die“, so they say; others die by their approximation to the bomb: the force ripping their fragile human limbs apart in ballistic arches of damp fresh death. One second: a man running an errand; the next: bloody debris slapping the pavement.
All too often, Hadi sees the carnage not from afar, but face-to-face. His sympathy lies not only with the country of Iraq and his city of Baghdad, but also with the people of Baghdad, the indirect victims of terror as well as the nameless pieces of flesh strewn across the city. A body with a face or an identity earns a burial, but the hundreds of mutilated bodies, themselves in hundreds of nameless pieces, can be given no burial but of that within the sands of time. Being a city scavenger and hoarder by trade, Hadi easily finds his calling: collect these anonymous pieces of flesh into a singular body in order to give them a proper collective burial, which they deserve as much as a whole body with a singular identity.
This supine stitched body, inert upon the table seeping necrotic purulence, is Hadi’s sympathetic construction, which is also a product of shame that he hides in the back of his dilapidated house. Most recently, he found a detached nose from a blast and sewed it onto the corporate corpse. His smile of pride in completing his macabre work is tarnished by the knowledge that explosions, terror, and death will not end. Later returning home, this mosaic monster seems to have disappeared, much to Hadi’s astonishment and dread.
This volitional corpse is also given a soul of a security guard who had recently been killed by a bomb. Though the soul is singular, its consciousness is collective: it is driven by justice for the victims of which it is composed and it is compelled to continue to fight against injustice. Guided a higher power with knowledge of all things, it begins to stalk the city for the murder offenders in each of the body’s stitched identities. The resulting murder spree further unsettled the community and eventually comes to the attention of the government’s reclusive Tracking and Pursuit Department, the head of which–Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid–has the ambition to capture the now-notorious entity in order to raise himself in civil service.
Even when employing the the portents of the Brigadier’s mystic forecasters, he is unable to locate the murderer; meanwhile, Mahamoud al-Sawadi–a magazine article writer keen on rising through the ranks by emulating his socially-connected boss–catches wind of the journalistic explosiveness of the story, thereby better pursuing the murderer and earning himself a recording of its confessions, its story, its ambition. So successful is the Whatitsname–the so-called Frankenstein–in its mission, it soon begins to run out of offenders to kill as each reciprocal kill causes the offended body part from the corporal corpse to fall off. In order to continue its pursuit of justice, it must kill lesser criminals so that fresh body parts can replace those that had fallen off. This Sisyphean task, however, isn’t without its moral descent: Innocence isn’t a line in the sand.
Analysis: Mahamoud al-Sawadi, the mentioned writer above from the novel, pens of three types of justice: legal justice, divine justice, and street justice; “however long it takes, criminals must face one of them” (173). Justice is a strong theme, the word itself appearing 29 times along with “revenge” 17 times, but then again “kill” appears 102 times. That said, the novel is rather violent, but perhaps not as visceral as my synopsis.
What happens when, from the perspective of the Iraqis, their country is invaded for betterment (ill defined and ambiguous), yet they still live in a reign of terror under another name, but very little progress is made other than having KFC and 4G LTE. Friends and families are killed by faceless organizations, but the murderers themselves are willingly suicidal… legal justice is dead. Divine justice happens behind the closed doors of heaven, so it transcends the human attention span. ‘Lo, there is street justice: swift, illegal, and bloody, usually, and very brief. However, to fulfill the amount of justice needed in Iraq’s bloody recent decade, street justice only can’t satisfy the justice-thirsty hearts of the city’s citizens; instead, it must be combined with divine justice, here interpreted as supernatural justice.
The animated corpse pursues justice with the supernatural knowledge of who did what to whom, who offended whom, who killed whom. Though the city may live in fear of the stalking killer, they also acknowledge its social usefulness as an implicit agent of justice where the usually explicit bodies of justice–strictly legal and strictly divine have their hands tied or take time, respectively.
As the corpse becomes alive, another part of the book has life breathed into it: the city. A city is usually seen as a teeming mass of faceless individuals, a colony of human ants scurrying to exchange money for wants and needs; however, Ahmed Saadawi populated his Baghdad with tangible folk, who earn and capture our attention amid the tribulations laid forth by the author and the protagonists. Its wide scope of influence allows the novel to shift like sand, leaving it neither predictable nor outlandish.
Review: The story alone snares the reader’s interest, especially if your a fan of body horror like I am. Take this in conjunction with the overarching theme of justice warranted and justice served and this novel will impress, satisfy. The metaphysical framing of the story is curious and may have deeper underpinnings between the author Ahmed Saadawi and the writer Mahamoud al-Sawadi.
This is merely one facet of a few that I haven’t been able to polish to a luster, so I’d love to hear what you thought.