Frankenstein in Baghdad

Ahmed Saadawi, Jonathan Wright

Frankenstein in Baghdad
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Frankenstein in Baghdad

Ahmed Saadawi, Jonathan Wright

Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction

From the rubble-strewn streets of US-occupied Baghdad, the scavenger Hadi collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and give them a proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realises he has created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive - first from the guilty, and then from anyone who crosses its path.

An extraordinary achievement, Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humour the surreal reality of a city at war.

Review

Originally published in Arabic in 2014, Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. And it does what it says on the packet: it’s about a man-made, sewn-together corpse that terrorises Baghdad. Set during the Iraqi war in the mid-2000s, the book is a surrealist take on the senselessness of war and, like its namesake Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, examines the capacity for cruelty that humans possess.

The novel centres on a decimated Baghdad neighbourhood whose decrease in population directly correlates with the increase in suicide bombings and military presence. The narrative moves between the remaining inhabitants of the neighbourhood, where the Whatsitsname – a creature made of the body parts of innocent victims of the war – is born, and the people invested in uncovering the story: a troubled journalist and a clandestine government department that utilises magic and astrology to track down terrorists.

While the intersecting plotlines do lose momentum at times, the experimental mix of dark comedy, gore, and surrealism make for a thought-provoking and highly entertaining meditation on the human cost of war.

Jonathan Wright has translated Frankenstein in Baghdad into English, managing to convey a complex narrative that includes many players without getting the threads too tangled. However, if you’re looking for a serious novel that deals with the political complexities of war in the Middle East, this is not it. Frankenstein in Baghdad is a blackly comic satire of bureaucracy and power, and how the everyday people caught up in war most often have no idea what’s going on in the upper echelons of government.


Kelsey Oldham works as a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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