In honor of Mary Shelley’s 200th publication anniversary of Frankenstein, I decided to check out a modern riff on the OG science fiction/horror novel from Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi called Frankenstein in Baghdad. While, not a direct rewrite, Baghdad examines the innate monster within the human soul in an awesome callback to the original novel. Furthermore, Baghdad offers a scary read with patches of dark, surreal humor. Frankenstein in Baghdad originally was printed in Arabic, but Jonathan Wright’s English translation only hit bookstores January 23rd of this year.
When Baghdad strikes a note, it nails it. The story rocks from suspenseful to comic to journalistic and back again. Elishva, Hadi, and Mahmoud’s narratives provide context for the terror caused by the monster, the Whatitsname. Hadi loses his best friend in a suicide bombing and when the corpse cannot be identified, he stitches together body parts of other victims in a memorial. The Whatitsname finds a mother’s embrace from Elishva, an elderly widow still waiting for her son to return home from the First Gulf War. When the Whatitsname start murdering criminals, Mahmoud the journalist profits from the story, but shady spies from a fragile government threaten his livelihood.
The Whatitisname’s gruesome purpose highlights the senselessness of war and violence. He receives a supernatural mission that even he doesn’t completely understand and it becomes perpetual. Hadi’s sheer selflessness hurts in light of his home neighborhood’s habit of calling him a liar and cheat, but he alone seems to care about his fellow man. A kind of reluctant ambition drives Mahmoud’s career at a magazine. Mahmoud’s editor, a wealthy author, pushes him into the job despite Mahmoud’s crush on his girlfriend. Elishva calls for the most sympathy, however, as the mother who devotes herself to memories that can never return.
Baghdad‘s scope encompasses a wide range of characters that populate an entire neighborhood. A cast of characters section precedes the actual meat of the book, which should be taken as a warning sign. With four storylines to juggle, it takes a little bit of time for the Whatitsname to actually kill anyone. As Baghdad closes out, a character known only as “The Writer” joins the cast, repeating a role already filled by Mahmoud, and adding a frame to a story that already stands up by itself.
Frankenstein in Baghdad provides an excellent modern example of horror driven by character flaws that build up and explode. While sometimes, the focus of the novel seems a little too scattered, the pathos and emotions stirred by the characters nail everything together. Frankenstein in Baghdad frightens, tickles, and provides deep reflection into a troubled community.
Page count: 281
Favorite quote: “Tomorrow the One Who Has No Name, he mused, might become He Who Has No Identity, and then He Who Has No Body, and then He Who Can’t Be Caught and Thrown In Jail.”