“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity and ruin.”
― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818, although the novel’s author’s name – Mary Shelley – would not appear on an edition until 1821 due to sexism in the publishing industry. Almost two hundred years and three thousand miles removed, Ahmed Saadawi penned Frankenstein in Baghdad, a reconfiguration of the well-known horror story as radical and unsettling as the famous scientist’s reconfiguration of the human form. Saadawi’s tale – published in 2013 – takes place in the years directly after the US invasion of Iraq, a time of chaos, bloodshed, and desperation. Those were bad years for Baghdad. The toll inflicted by the US invasion and occupation is difficult for Westerners to comprehend, let alone contemplate: estimates vary widely and wildly based on politics and methodology, ranging from over 100,000 to 400,000 to (by one heavily-criticized count) possibly a million. When your numbers vary by a factor of ten, it’s worth wondering if your statistical model has any value at all.
Destruction at that level is both monstrous – something large, inhuman, and impossible to comprehend – and utterly pedestrian, a thing of bombed-out neighborhoods, interrupted lives, destroyed livelihoods, traffic jams, and tall tales. Saadawi captures all of this in Dostoevskian polyphony, bringing us a tale of undead vengeance from the underground upward. [WARNING: Mild spoilers to follow.]
When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, it was in part a response to the changes rocking Europe and North America, particularly those associated with the Enlightenment. The process that Victor Frankenstein used to bring the Creature to life in Frankenstein is left intentionally murky, but it involves chemistry and alchemy – disciplines much more closely related in that era. The process by which Hadi the junk dealer brings his creation to life in Frankenstein in Baghdad is decidedly less vague and more metaphysical (and metaphorical): Hadi collects pieces of bodies left behind after a suicide bombing and stitches them together, adding the final piece – the nose, in what I like to imagine is a nod to Nikolai Gogol – before passing out drunk. The displaced soul of another victim of the blast wanders into this amalgamation of corpses and it comes to life. Since it is a composite entity made of many victims, it has no name, and is referred to variously as Criminal X, The One Who Has No Name, and the Whatsitsname.
This namelessness is interesting. Mary Shelly never named Frankenstein’s creation. When she saw a stage adaptation of Frankenstein some years after the novel’s release, she wrote:
Frankenstein had prodigious success as a drama & was about to be repeated for the 23rd night at the English opera house. The play bill amused me extremely, for in the list of dramatis personae came, ——–by Mr. T. Cooke: this nameless mode of naming the un-nameable is rather good.
Whereas Shelly’s version of the monster was animated by science and driven by a murderous and rapacious philosophy masquerading as the quest for self-realization, Saadawi’s is animated by the mysterious forces of religion and superstition, and motivated by bloody vengeance masquerading as justice. And while Victor Frankenstein was murdered by his Creature, which then sailed off into the frozen darkness, adrift, Hadi the junk dealer’s fated appointment is with a different sort of reckoning. The Whatsitsname’s fate is far less certain.
Saadawi’s prose is both sparse and evocative, and his attention to the little emotional details of day-to-day life in Baghdad render his vision of a reanimated monstrosity both surreal and weirdly plausible; in a city so ravaged by war, what is truly impossible, truly too horrible to imagine? Everything in Baghdad has been torn apart and stitched back together at the margins of society, where criminality bleeds into commerce through the real estate broker with shady government “rental agreements,” the drunken junk dealer and his derelict shanty, the old woman with religious obsessions, and the aimless middle-aged men who gather in the tea shop to hear fantastical lies. Unlike Frankenstein’s creation, this monster requires replacement parts. Before long, Hadi’s monster is made of many body disparate parts from many victims, from many sects and ethnicities. As the story progresses and he begins to fall apart, he replaces himself a bit at a time, and likewise his moral compass begins to slip, until questions of who is truly innocent and who is a criminal rise to the surface (again – shades of Dostoevsky).
As far as story-length metaphors go, I have seen few (if any) better than Frankenstein in Baghdad. As a work of Arabic and Iraqi horror, it’s not only a compelling and gruesome story, it represents an important new perspective in horror fiction – and one that I hope we hear a lot more from.