Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi: Man Booker International Prize Review

 

frankenstein

I picked up Frankenstein in Baghdad because it was the most accessible book on the longlist (in stock at Chapters!), not because I was excited to read about war. My last war book, Canada Reads contender American War, didn’t go so well, and right off the bat, I noticed similarities. Frankenstein opens with a leaked government document, a top secret report on the activities of the “Tracking and Pursuit Department” in Iraq. American War actually makes great use of leaked documents, transcripts, and newspaper clippings to frame its time-hopping narrative. The author is a former journalist, and probably got a feel for what government documents look like, so they feel really authentic. I didn’t buy it in Frankenstein, though. The language was too plain. Even the “Top Secret” stamp looked amateur.

Luckily, that’s the only such document in the book. The rest is a straight-up narrative set in contemporary Iraq. Frankenstein distinguishes itself from American War in one more important way: it leave room for the reader to think.

My main beef with American War was that it hit the reader over the head again and again with its messages, and did so in a clumsy way, often putting complex thoughts about war and violence into a twelve year old girl’s head. Frankenstein has an even more out-there premise, but Saadawi doesn’t over-explain, doesn’t tell me what I should think, and sure doesn’t make a child explain things to me.

The “Frankenstein” is the creation of Hadi, an eccentric junk dealer, who stitches together a complete human body by scavenging body parts from various bombing sites. That Hadi has no problem finding body parts is just the beginning of the horror (we get to witness his triumph at finding a “fresh nose”). Through a series of convenient events, the body comes to life. The “how” is not too important. The Frankenstein (known in the book as “Whatsitsname”) is driven to seek revenge for each of the people who make up his body. But there’s a catch: each time Whatsitsname kills someone, the body part from the avenged person rots and falls off, and he must replace that part so he can carry on and seek revenge for everyone else.

You can see where this is going, right? Whatsitsname tries to find spare parts lying around, like his “father” Hadi did, but eventually resorts to murder to keep going. So, right away, a couple of things come to mind:

  • What’s worse: the murders that lead to Whatsitsname’s original body parts? The revenge killings carried out in those victim’s names? Or the extra murders carried out so revenge can be served? Does it matter that some of those original murders were probably legal, in that they were the result of military action, or are those killings just as bad as those carried out by a literal monster?
  • Whatsitsname is the embodiment of violence leading to more violence, and trauma leading to more trauma. He can’t stop killing because of all the killing that went into making him.

Not that either idea above is super deep or anything, nor are they the only possibilities -I didn’t even dig into the biblical references, and it’s been too many years since I read Shelley’s Frankenstein to draw those parallels – but I came up with my ideas all by myself, and that feels good. At no point did Saadawi step in with some omniscient narrator to tell me these things, nor did any of the characters burst into a convenient soliloquy. And he easily could have gone that route! The point-of-view characters include a grieving mother, a up-and-coming journalist, and the aforementioned Hadi, who stitched this body together in the first place to deal with the trauma of losing a friend in a particularly grisly manner. Any one of them could have turned to the reader and explained the moral of the story.

That Saadawi shows such restraint in a book that has such an extreme premise is remarkable. That he’s able to tell this story in under 300 pages, without any frames and flashbacks, and without many asides like that opening “top secret” document, is a testament to his storytelling abilities. And while the writing is mostly pretty plain (which works well), there are a few memorable images, particularly one towards the end, when we take our leave of Whatsitsname. Without spoiling, I will say the reader’s last encounter with the “Frankenstein in Baghdad” is beautiful, horrifying, and sad, which is exactly right.

 

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10 comments

  1. bookbii

    Excellent review. I’ve been attracted to this book by the title alone, and the premise which is interesting, but the fact that it permits the reader space to make their own judgements is the kicker. Glad this was a better experience than your last read.

    • lauratfrey

      The way the title comes about in the book actually makes a lot of sense too. It’s supposed to be sensational. Let me know if you end up trying it!

  2. Kat

    A fascinating review! I do admire you for making your way through this longlist. Very few of these books are available in the U.S., and I thought of jumping on the bandwagon with those of you who read a lot of books in translation, but like you I’m not keen on war books. And journalist are not always the best novelists!

    • lauratfrey

      It has been a pain finding the books, this one was an exception. I think journalism and fiction writing are two very different skills, people just tend to lump them together as “writing” and call it a day 🙂

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