I was thrilled when I saw that the 2020 Retellings Challenge had a bingo square for a retelling of Frankenstein. Not only did I enjoy the original Frankenstein way more than I expected but it’s a very different kind of retelling from the ones I usually read – which, let’s be honest, is mostly fairy tales. Plus, this is a translated book, it is set in Baghdad, and it was shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize. Those are all things of which I read way too few books, so instead of picking one of the YA Frankenstein retellings, I picked this one and I’m glad I did.
FRANKENSTEIN IN BAGHDAD
by Ahmed Saadawi
translated by Jonathan Wright
Published: Penguin, 2018 (2013 in Arabic)
Ebook: 287 pages
My rating: 7/10
Opening line: With regard to the activities of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, which is partially affiliated with the civil administration of the international coalition forces in Iraq, the special committee of inquiry set up under my chairmanship, with representatives of the Iraqi security and intelligence agencies and observers from U.S. military intelligence, has come to the following conclusions:
From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi–a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café–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 to give them 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 realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive–first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by “Baghdad’s new literary star” (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started this book. The very long list of characters at the beginning worried me a little, especially considering that this isn’t a very big book. But there was no need to worry and if you pick up this book, you don’t have to study the character list too closely. Like any good writer, Ahmed Saadawi manages to introduce his cast to the readers with ease, making each character distinct and believable, and I only once had to check back with the character list because I had two similarly-named characters confused.
This is a story told through several viewpoints. First, Saadawi paints a picture of Baghdad that makes what we read in the news feel way more real. Suicide bombers are a weekly occurence, bombs exploding, people dying… these things happen so often that people have come accept them as part of their daily lives. They are still terrible, of course, but nobody breaks into the kind of panic I would expect of myself if that happened in my city. So these first introductory chapters served not only to show us the first characters but also to set up the place for this story. As a fantasy reader, I usually don’t have trouble imagining crazy things, impossible places, or alien species. But to imagine living in a place where you or your loved ones could be killed in an explosion at any time was really tough.
We follow a cast of characters, among them the elderly Elishva who simply can’t deal with the grief of having lost her son during the war and still holds fast to the hope that he will just return one day. Her neighbor, the junkdealer Hadi, is probably the closest character to the original Victor Frankenstein – he collects body parts from the various explosions and stitches them together. Why? He’s not sure himself but after a while, he’s got a whole entire body made up of different people’s parts. Mahmoud is a young journalist with a secret past who admires his boss and discovers the story of Hadi’s creation. There are quite a few other characters that help flesh out the story but they aren’t what I’d call protagonists. And of course there’s the Whatsitsname itself.
Once the Whatsitsname (this book’s Frankenstein’s monster) comes to life, he follows a mission. That mission seems clear enough at first, but after being mistaken by Elishva for her long dead son and after witnessing certain events, the “monster” asks itself many questions about morality, good and bad, about when killing is justified. We don’t get too many chapters from the Whatsitsname’s point of view but the ones we do get are powerful!
While we follow each of the main characters on their own personal journey, they do intertwine every so often, making the story feel like a big whole rather than jumbled up short stories. I was quite taken with the writing style, so props to the translator as well as the author. I can’t quite describe it because it’s not particularly flowery, nor particularly stark, but it was unlike most books I’d read before. The prose flowed nicely so, despite the heavy subject matter, I read this book pretty quickly.
On the one hand, this book is exactly what you’d expect. It is Frankenstein in Baghdad. But you can’t just take a story set in Europe and place it in a different part of the world without changing anything. Where Shelley’s creature deals mostly with abandonment and loneliness, Saadawi’s Whatsitsname has the added burden of being made up of innocent terrorism victims’ parts and wanting to avenge them. So much happens between the lines that I still can’t put into words, but it was fascinating to read.
When all is said and done, I am quite happy to have picked up this book. Sure, it was tough to read at times because of its setting and subject matter, but it gave me a glimpse into a real place in our world, peopled with fictional characters who are as lovable as they are flawed, varied and interesting to follow. From now on, I will be on the lookout for more translated books and more settings I usually neglect.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!