The slow progress of international novels being published in the UK has resulted in this most timely of releases. In the month of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, the translation of Ahmed Saadawi’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction winning novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad is finally released, four years after its original publication, and it is completely worth the wait.
In the war torn streets of Baghdad, a suicide bomber hits a hotel, killing a security guard. The guard’s soul wanders the city looking for a place to settle, finally finding an empty body to occupy. That body has been stitched together from the remnants of bombing victims, and once the soul takes over, it becomes a vessel for revenge and violence across the city. Brought into this cycle of violence are a number of characters, from the man who created the monster to journalists, and an old woman, Elishva, who believes the newly conscious creation is actually her son Daniel, who disappeared years ago.
There have been plenty of novels to cover the notion of violence begetting violence, most of which make the point just fine, from The Reluctant Fundamentalist, to The Association of Small Bombs, they tread well worn ground, never really finding anything particularly new to say. Frankenstein in Baghdad, although ostensibly a reworking of Shelley’s classic, is packed full of originality. It takes the original story and reshapes it, moulding it into its own unique work. This isn’t a novel about man playing God, this is a novel about men playing Death. As the Frankenstein’s monster of this novel (called Whatshisname throughout) discovers, each time he enacts revenge on a victim, that victim’s body part falls from his body, useless now its unfinished business is complete. In order to continue his mission, he must seek out new victims, attach new parts to himself. He cannot stop the violence, ever, and the line between who is and who isn’t a victim becomes extremely blurry.
Saadawi’s writing (and Jonathan Wright’s translation) is excellent. He juggles a large number of characters and plots with ease, and manages to achieve the trickiest of things: he makes urban fantasy work. Make no mistake, this is an urban fantasy novel. The Baghdad government consult with astrologers and magicians, and ghosts walk the streets of the city. The key is that all of these elements serve the story. They’re not quirky window dressing. Likewise, though this is a lean book, it packs an enormous amount of story in, but never feels baggy. This could be, in large part, due to Saadawi’s writing, which is often extremely funny.
I thought that the well had run dry on novels about the Iraq war. Post 9/11, that flurry of books that covered similar ground felt dry, or worse, rang false. It’s so refreshing to find a novel that manages to say something in such a unique way. It’s easy to see why the book has won so many awards, including France’s prestigious Le Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire.
Any Cop?: If this one doesn’t wind up being one of my favourite books this year, then I will be very, very surprised. Witty, moving and fantastic in every sense of the word, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a masterpiece.