Ahmed Saadawi's new book is an impressively macabre tale of modern Iraqby Tanjil Rashid / March 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Iraq was invented after the First World War, a Frankenstein’s monster of a state stitched together from the remains of the dismembered Ottoman empire. The three former provinces now known as Iraq, and their three constituent peoples, Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds, have been plagued by violence ever since.
This is the history that explains the ingenious conceit of Frankenstein in Baghdad, the novel that won Ahmed Saadawi the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Hadi, a vagabond junk dealer, collects the body parts that litter Baghdad in the aftermath of suicide bombings, and stitches them together in a shed, much as the colonial powers sutured his country into existence.
When the lost soul of a dead security guard takes up residence in the patchwork corpse, the whatsitsname (as the creature is known) is animated to life. He sets about exacting revenge for the victims out of which he has been formed, their traumatic memories preserved in his bones. Spelling out this macabre metaphor for Iraq’s troubled body politic, the whatsitsname says: “Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds—ethnicities, tribes, races and social classes—I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen.”
This darkly funny fantasy is narrated with an inventiveness that recalls the stories of Hassan Blasim, whose absurd fictions from Iraq were also translated into English by former foreign correspondent Jonathan Wright. Shifting perspectives and styles, Saadawi satirises everything from Iraq’s dehumanising, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, whose clinical prose matter-of-factly renders absurd events, to the sensationalism of contemporary news culture (the title is a parody of a newspaper headline).
As formally innovative as it is socio-politically charged, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a brilliant creature in its own right.
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright is published by Oneworld, £12.99