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Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Book review: Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi (2018)

This thrilling novel of ideas pushes all the right buttons and delivers a series of breathtaking punches to the reader’s guts. The twists and turns are dizzying and the plot is unconventional and loose but the book’s superstructure survives intact and while the whole thing gels beautifully its message is complex and multifaceted.

Initially published in Arabic in 2013, my Kindle translation was brought out by Oneworld Publications in the UK and Australia. I don’t know what the Australian link is but I’m interested to find out because this is a very talented author indeed. I bought this book before my Middle Eastern trip (which was chronicled on this blog in May, June and July) but I didn’t get around to reading it until after I got back home to Sydney. I only spent just under a month in the region but reading this book a number of things that I had thought as a result of the travel kept coming back to me. I’ll get to that in due course but to look at the novel, to start with, I can say that the plotting, characterisation, and poetics are all very strong.

The story hinges on a piece of magic. One night a hotel security guard named Hasib Mohamed Jaafar is killed by a suicide bomber driving a truck primed with explosives and Hasib’s spirit goes to the cemetery where his remains are being buried in a coffin. Very little of him remains however and he talks with the spirit of a young boy he meets in the graveyard who tells him to find a body otherwise, the boy says, things will turn out badly. The ghost of Hasib follows a man who had been injured in the blast, a junk seller named Hadi, back to Hadi’s house, and there finds a sewn-up corpse made from the parts of different bodies that had been created by explosions similar to the one that had killed Hasib. He inhabits the body and walks next-door to the house of an old Christian woman named Elishva. Thinking he is her son Daniel, who had been taken away by the Baathists in the 1980s, Elishva looks after him.

(To digress for a second: at least one of Elishva’s daughters lives in Melbourne, and this woman’s attempts to get her mother to migrate is one of the plot devices that helps to move the story along at different points in the narrative. So there might be other things linking the author to Australia, it’s hard to say.)

The monster goes about killing people who had wronged him but finds that he is disintegrating and needs new body parts in order to remain whole. His followers help him to stay entire by helping him kill more people, and the authorities try to capture him but he cannot be killed by bullets and always eludes police.

A diverse cast of characters is invented to give substance to the city and to the country in the aftermath of the American invasion. The owner of a magazine titled ‘al-Haqiqa’, a man named Ali Baher al-Saidi, seems to embody the country’s values. He has a friend who runs what is known as the Tracking and Pursuit Department, a shadowy government organisation staffed by well-dressed thugs and astrologers. This friend, Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid, plays a central role in the drama, as does a young reporter in Saidi’s employ named Mahmoud al-Sawaidi, who manages to capture a recording of the monster after he passes a digital recording device to Hadi. The comedy draws on, dragging a whole range of different characters into its orbit and exposing them all to scrutiny, the kind of forensic appraisal that great humourists like Swift and Sterne applied to their creations in an effort to make things about their societies clear that could be expressed in no other way.

It’s very hard to do justice in this kind of short sketch to a novel as broad in ambition and as substantial of poetic vision as this one. But above and beyond the musings on the three great religions of the book that the author tangentially allows himself, the things that came back time and time again to impose itself on my mind was the degree to which, in Saadawi’s Iraq, everyone is responsible for the health of the nation.

I felt this myself travelling – admittedly for a short period of time – in that part of the world. There is an unwillingness there to submit to secular rule that expresses itself in lawlessness, and which comes out in this novel as violence. In the absence of institutions that people can agree are deserving of the privilege they aspire to have as arbiters of life for the communities living in the cities and towns of the state, other forces function to regulate existence. Religion is one of these, but the law of the streets – a trope that Mahmud returns to from time to time in his role as observer – is also something to worry about.

If you don’t know what I mean then perhaps you need to at least read the book. If you can get yourself on a plane and visit one or more countries in the region, even better. Saadawi deserves greater renown than he has achieved (although I did see one UK review which was, like the one you’re reading now, full of applause). He deserves to be read widely especially by people who regret, as I do, the US-led invasion of 2003. He certainly deserves much greater acclaim than that which is offered by my inadequate regard.

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