Early in Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad, a hotel guard named Hasib is killed by a suicide bomber driving a garbage truck loaded with dynamite. This is not an unusual occurrence in the novel, which takes place in 2005, two years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Baghdad it describes is wracked by explosions and this particular explosion is actually the second to occur within the first forty pages of the book. Hasib is killed, and his family is given a small collection of his possessions from work. After his funeral, his family members dream of him:
Parts of one dream made up for parts missing in another. A little dream filled a gap in a big one, and the threads stitched together to create a dream body for Hasib, to go with his soul, which was still hovering over all their heads and seeking the rest it could not find. Where was the body to which it should return in order to take its place among those who live in a state of limbo? (p. 36)
The soul of Hasib hovers over his family because little of his body remains; his coffin is a “token,” representing the body that could not be recovered. His family members try to make a dream body for him, but it seems that a dream body is not enough to hold a soul. The trauma of a violent death continues into the afterlife.
Though Hasib is mentioned by name in only one brief chapter, his plight echoes through the rest of the novel. Who are you when your body has been scattered? There are many scattered bodies here. The question of identity in the midst of disintegration applies to the bodies of those killed as well as the metaphorical bodies of family groups, neighborhoods, cities, and a country. In this novel, families contain absences, the gaps left by loved ones who never came home, who died and were buried, and those who chose to leave, scattering the people of Iraq to other countries. Where is home, when your family is spread across the world? Where is your community, when a few more people die or leave every day? The novel does not so much answer these questions as ask them again and again, taking us repeatedly to moments of trauma like a horrifying magic trick, macabre scarves pulled out of a hat.
Frankenstein in Baghdad was published in Arabic in 2013, winning the International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortly thereafter, and came out last year in an English translation by Jonathan Wright. The novel combines realistic elements and fantasy elements, merging both through dark absurdity. A widow lives alone in a crumbling house, her only company a cat and a picture of Saint George that talks to her late at night. A secretive government agency, the Tracking and Pursuit Department, is staffed by astrologers and fortune-tellers who identify upcoming explosions, but whose predictions are ignored. At one point, an explosion exposes walls beneath the street, an archaeological marvel, which is promptly paved over by the government. And, of course, a man sewn together from the body parts of corpses walks the streets.
This Frankenstein's monster has several creators. Hadi, a junk dealer known for telling tall tales, is the first. Hadi is dismayed by how the remaining body parts from the city's violence are tossed aside. He tries to undo a little of the damage by gathering body parts together and sewing them into a single corpse. As one body, even one made up of many people, Hadi's hope is that the corpse “would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial” (p. 27). In Hadi's experience, to be scattered means to be tossed aside and treated like trash, rather than a person to be treated with respect, which in the case of a corpse means to be mourned and buried. With Hadi's project, Saadawi shifts Frankenstein's creation from hubris in the face of death to a small act of desperation. Hadi's ambition is quite small compared to the destruction caused by the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the ongoing conflict. He does not intend to bring the dead back to life or bring back all who have left or even identify the body parts of all who have died. No, his goal is only to make one corpse from the body parts he scrounges off the streets, one corpse that will have to be treated like a human being and not discarded like trash. His goal is one moment of respect.
Hadi's ambition makes the body. The lost soul of Hasib, the security guard, fills the body. But another element is needed to bring the body to life. This final element is provided by Elishva, the widow who converses with a picture of Saint George. Elishva has been waiting for decades for her son, Daniel, to return. She is convinced he did not die as a soldier. She sees the body which Hasib's soul has just entered and, with her failing eyesight mistakes him for her son. She cries, “Get up, Daniel,” and her command animates the body, turning him from a corpse into a being (p. 53). He is a creature formed from a junk dealer's desire for a little human respect, a hotel guard's soul searching for a body, and a mother's fervent desire for her son to return.
The creature, called the Whatsitsname, is a killer. Between his actions and the horrors of occupied Baghdad, there is a lot of death in Frankenstein in Baghdad. Even in depicting death, though, the novel maintains an absurd tone. For example, the earliest of the Whatsitsname's victims are a group of four beggars. They are found on the street, in front of a house managed by a realtor named Faraj. The scene delays describing the dead men, starting instead with the arrival of the Iraqi police, accompanied by a U.S. military policeman, and then the arrival of Faraj. The opening of the scene bears a similarity to a police procedural, in which the arrival of police at the scene of a crime demonstrates a resumption of order. In procedurals, the terrible disruption of a murder is tamed by the procedures of investigating the crime scene, interviewing the witnesses, etc. Here, however, the police are as much a disruption as the murders. The police take photographs and pepper Faraj with aggressive questions, while he clutches a suitcase full of the official paperwork that is his line of defense against the attentions of the government. The police rush in and, as quickly as they arrived, rush out again, leaving Faraj and the reader breathless in their wake and doubtful that anything has been achieved. There is no order here for the Whatsitsname to disrupt. All is disorder. In fact, Faraj is as scared of the U.S. military policeman as he is of the sight of the four dead men.
The description of the beggars, when it finally arrives, further pushes into the absurd:
Each of the beggars had his hands around the neck of the man in front of him. It looked like some weird tableau or theatrical scene. Their clothes were dirty and tattered, and their heads hung forward. If Hazem Abboud had seen this and taken a picture, he would have won an international prize for it. (p. 69)
This description encourages the reader to view the bodies from a distance: as “theatrical” or as a photograph. The horror is more existential than physical: to be denied personhood in death and instead be reduced to a “tableau.” (And the other side of that horror: to be the person watching, who sees the tableau and fails to see the people.)
Saadawi points to the horror of the tableau, like he points to the trauma of being scattered, but he does not re-create that horror. Frankenstein in Baghdad succeeds because it is not a tableau. The novel shows the people of Baghdad—junk dealer, realtor, hotel owner, widow, journalist—and spends time in the daily lives and ambitions of each. Hadi, the junk dealer, worries about an old man who keeps changing his mind about selling his belongings. Faraj, the realtor, wants to take over more buildings in the neighborhood, including both Elishva's home and the hotel of Abu Anmar. Elishva, the widow, talks with her daughters on Sundays and prays for the return of her son. Mahmoud, the journalist, is pushed in over his head as he is promoted to editor. Abu Anmar, the hotel owner, struggles to keep in business. The novel depicts these characters engaged in the absurd ambition of living in the midst of violence. Often, they seem to be caught in an unending cycle of activity with no result. Reports issued by the Tracking and Pursuit Department, identifying future explosions, are ignored and the explosions happen anyway. Hadi is caught in a cycle of visiting the old man again and again, as the old man promises to sell him his belongings and then changes his mind. Faraj, the realtor, tries to acquire more and more property in a city that people are leaving and in which property is frequently destroyed by explosions.
The structure of the novel reflects and emphasizes this feeling of churning activity. A scene with one character is interrupted by a scene with a different character, only for the first scene to resume many pages later. A scene begins in media res, then cuts to several pages of the activities that preceded the scene, and then returns to the scene and continues forward. In this way, the structure of the narrative spirals like the characters' actions, creating the impression of an exaggerated amount of activity in proportion to the novel's events.
These exaggerated, circling activities point to the ultimate absurdity—and the ultimate tragedy—of Frankenstein in Baghdad: that there is nothing the characters can do to change the basic conditions that surround them. Their city is occupied by an invading force, explosions rip through bodies and buildings, people flee. Saadawi deliberately orients his characters far from power, with even the Brigadier, the head of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, unable to stop the explosions his staff successfully predict. This distance from power was most notable with Mahmoud, the journalist, who seems peculiarly naïve for his occupation. He is contrasted with his boss, Saidi, who takes special interest in Mahmoud, promoting him to editor. Saidi takes Mahmoud along on trips to visit people in positions of power, and Mahmoud's response is not curiosity or an attempt to understand the political forces crossing his city. No, instead Mahmoud feels dizzy and thinks he should turn down Saidi's trips in the future (p. 80). He keeps going on those trips anyway, though not out of an attempt to get at any kind of truth or revelation. Mahmoud desires Saidi's life—or the appearance of that life—without understanding why Saidi does what he does or the political world in which Saidi operates. This naiveté feels deliberately exaggerated, emphasizing that these characters live in a world wracked by forces that are beyond their understanding or control.
I may have found Mahmoud's naiveté especially notable in part because I found his storyline irritating. Part of Mahmoud's desire for Saidi's life is an obsession with Nawal al-Wazir, a female film director who is part of Saidi's circle. That obsession is a prominent thread in Mahmoud's portion of the narrative. What he does with that obsession is not particularly surprising: when he has access to Saidi's phone he calls Nawal and says nothing, he visits several sex workers (one of whom he insists on calling by Nawal's name, even when she gets angry), and when he does finally have a conversation with her he interprets everything she does as desire for him, contrary to what she actually says. The novel's perspective is not united with Mahmoud's perspective, but nevertheless does not offer much opportunity to see Nawal on her own—even in their conversation, a significant portion of what she says is provided in summary. (She does get to say, “you don't seem to have understood,” when he grabs her hand. [p. 228]) This obsession was like an irritating bit of grit as I read, since I long ago grew tired of men's obsessions with women, especially obsessions that eclipse the woman as a full character with her own identity. Fair warning to readers who feel the same.
In this sense, the large cast of characters and the many pieces of the novel are both a benefit and a detriment. Any character or narrative thread that is uninteresting is moved past quickly, though those you like move past quickly, too. And the churning structure means that both the interesting and the uninteresting resume again and again. The churning structure also means that, without reading carefully, it is easy to miss references that are pages and chapters apart. There are books that draw me back into reading when I think about them. Frankenstein in Baghdad is a different kind of book. The novel became clearer for me with distance and time, as my mind sorted through the sometimes overwhelming inputs of characters, scenes, and details.
The Whatsitsname is the narrative thread stitching those inputs together. He is both a literal figure stalking the streets and a symbol. The meaning of that symbol is revisited throughout the novel, with multiple answers. (Saadawi wouldn't have named his creature the “Whatsitsname” if the creature wasn't in some sense a perpetual question.) Meanings accrue to the Whatsitsname in a mishmash, like the stitched-together parts that form his body. In my favorite chapter, he narrates his activities and his purpose into a handheld recorder. He claims for himself the role of justice, while his companions call him the model citizen of Iraq, the destroyer before the savior arrives, or the savior himself (p. 147). He is justice, revenge, an agent of fear, and a form of destruction. He is an ever-shifting justification for violence, finding a new purpose for killing when the original purpose is gone.
Ultimately, it is small moments, both realistic and fantastical, that carry the book. Elishva, alone in her apartment, arguing with Saint George, who has promised that her son will return. Hasib, searching for a body for his soul. The Whatsitsname, wandering the streets as his body disintegrates. People devoted to the heartbreaking and absurd ambitions of living.
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