Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
Penguin Books (January 2018)
288 pages, $10.87 paperback; $11.99 e-book
Reviewed by Joshua Gage
Ahmed Saadawi is an Iraqi novelist, poet, screenwriter and documentary film maker. He won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for Frankenstein in Baghdad, which was recently translated into English and published by Penguin.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is a Dickensian novel, focused on multiple characters. The titular character, also known as Whatsitsname, comes into being when Hadi, a junk dealer, collects the body parts of bombing victims throughout Baghdad and sews them together in order that there be a body to bury and perform holy rituals for. This piecemeal body gains consciousness and begins to take revenge on the people who are responsible for the death of its individual parts; however, once an individual part is avenged, it begins to disintegrate, requiring the body to constantly be updated with new parts. This starts a vicious cycle of finding parts quickly enough to replace the disappearing parts, and soon the bodies of terrorists and criminals are used, which causes a madness in the creature.
Frankenstein in Baghdad serves as excellent social commentary on war-torn Iraq, almost personifying the chaos caused by war with the title character. However, all the other characters, from a mad woman who has lost her son and believes the monster to be his reincarnation based on a vision she received from an icon, to the young, upstart journalist trying to establish his career and at the same time maintain his integrity, work to develop this idea of insanity caused by continual armed conflict in the country. Saadawi has artfully created an allegory of this sociopolitical climate for his readers, using the characters to advance the madness caused by war and conflict.
As such, Frankenstein in Baghdad may not be to everyone’s taste. For people looking for a genuine horror novel, the scares are less visceral and more theoretical and psychological in this novel. To be sure, there is a monster who goes on a murderous rampage, but the real horror of the novel is what that monster represents in the real world, and the literal tenor that the literary vehicle of the novel presents. Frankenstein in Baghdad is as much a literary novel as it is horror fiction, and readers wanting more genre-oriented writing might become bored by the complex plots that Saadawi weaves together to create this book.
Overall, Frankenstein in Baghdad works really well as sociopolitical commentary. If anything, readers should champion the multi-cultural aspects of this text and the idea that horror can be used as a vehicle to present a strong, social message. This is a really well-written, well-crafted novel, and readers who like literary horror will surely enjoy it.