Ahmed Saadawi; Trans. Jonathan Wright

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright, depicts the horrors perpetrated on the residents of Baghdad during the U.S. occupation. Based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it deviates from the original to reflect the situation in Baghdad.

Hadi, an Iraqi junk dealer, selects the discarded body parts of victims of suicide bombers. He stitches the body parts together until he has formed a complete human being. His goal is to shame the Iraqi authorities into giving a proper burial to the bits and pieces of the human body blown apart by suicide bombers instead of just tossing them into the trash. His plan takes an unexpected twist when the lifeless body comes alive with the infusion of a soul from another victim.

The Baghdadi Frankenstein, known as Whatsitsname, takes justice into his own hands by killing those responsible for murder and/or for causing irreparable injury to others. His “avenging angel” killing spree takes an unexpected twist when he justifies killing innocent people because he needs fresh body parts to replace his disintegrating body.

Several threads run throughout the story populated by a wide range of characters whose lives intersect with each other. Together, these threads paint a picture of horrendous violence, corruption, lies, theft, injustice, paralyzing fear, abusive government officials, power struggles, physical and mental dislocation, subterfuge, superstition, and collective guilt. No one is really innocent; no one can be trusted. The same individual is at times a victim and at other times a criminal. Amid this chaos and uncertainty, Saadawi explores the role of religion—its power to heal and its potential for harm when it is manipulated to promote a ruthless political agenda.

The novel is translated from Arabic. The language was prosaic, which may be due to the nature of the translation. Elements and events were introduced as if they were of great significance only to be summarily dropped from the narrative, leaving the reader struggling to understand why they were mentioned in the first place. The disparate threads and several characters intermittently weaving in and out make it a challenging read.

Saadawi portrays the horror of life in a war zone and the destabilizing impact on residents living under a constant barrage of car bombs, internecine warfare, foreign occupation, disappearances, and senseless killings. Just as Hadi stitches various body parts to compose a complete human being, the residents of Baghdad struggle to stitch the bits and pieces of their desperate lives to sustain some semblance of normalcy when all around is fragmented and punctuated by acts of unspeakable violence. War dehumanizes all who are caught up in it—whether they are active participants or bystanders just struggling to survive.

A complex and sobering novel. Recommended if only because it explores the consequences of war on the personal and collective psyche of the people caught in its cross hairs.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review