Quarter Cannonball achievement unlocked!
I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley and the Frankenstein story, so I was super intrigued by Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi. I wasn’t disappointed by this retelling, some of it told from the monster’s point of view, but I’ll admit there were parts of the story that just didn’t grab me.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is a darkly comic story of life in Baghdad during the years just after the US invasion of Iraq. It’s an English translation from the original Arabic, so I’m not sure if some of the story is lost through this interpretation, or if my Western understanding of storytelling dampened the effect, but I found quite a few of the chapters, which rotate between the narrators, to be quite dull and unnecessary. That being said, my overall impression of the story was that, not surprisingly, life during wartime can be dangerous, sad, traumatic, and corrupt, but can also be hopeful, inventive and sometimes even funny in a cheerlessly ironic way.
The crux of the story revolves around a monster which is created when a bomb explodes outside a Baghdad hotel, and a crazy old man decides that the best way to bury the dead is to sew together all the body parts to make one “man” which can be put to rest. Except… this new man awakens before his burial, and can’t remember what happened to him, beyond his compulsion to kill any and everyone who caused his death(s). Since the monster’s body is made up of a lot of people, this murder list is quite long.
As the story progresses, the monster begins to decompose—the parts of his body which have been avenged “die,” and have to be replaced, which of course means there are new murderers who must be eliminated. Readers don’t have to think too hard to realise that the killing will never stop, and that eventually there will be body parts which killed the owners of other body parts, including the monster himself who starts killing innocent people for their limbs, by rationalising that maybe no one is truly innocent, and so, yeah, things get weird.
If only this had been the entire book! Unfortunately there are five to seven other main characters who are tangentially related to the monster whose exploits in war torn Baghdad frame at least half of the book. All but one are older men—the sole female character is a loopy old lady whose son went missing, so she won’t leave her bombed out house in hopes he will return. When she sees the monster, she believes her son has come home, so she gives him a place to sleep and clothes to wear. There’s also a reporter and the shady owner of his magazine, a boorish military commander, a destitute hotel owner, a used furniture dealer, and my admitted favourite, a dotty old astrologer and his assistant who consult with the military commander to help him figure out where the “enemy” will strike next.
Saadawi’s political satire is spot on and he uses the spectre of the monster to skilfully point out that no one involved in war is completely innocent. There was an explosion of graft and corruption in Iraq when the government fell and this was a true monster. No amount of redistribution or reorganisation of rotten meat will make a dead body more palatable. Frankenstein in Baghdad, though it had slow parts, was a good read and I would recommend it to anyone who likes their satire with a tasty dose of personified repugnance.
CBR10Bingo: This one’s for Backlog