Shelley Meets Saadawi

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(Photo Credit: Goodreads)

Title: Frankenstein in Baghdad

Author: Ahmed Saadawi, translation from Arabic by Jonathan Wright

Publisher: Penguin Books (Original publication by Al Kamel)

Genre: Science fiction

Year: 2018 (Originally published in 2013)

Pages: 281

Price on Amazon: $22.99 CDN

“From his pocket he took a small gadget attached to a long silver cord that you could hang around your neck. I figured out that it was a digital recorder. He was talking to his friends about the device, and some of them started laughing. One of his friends pointed to the metal chairs near the table where I was sitting. He came over, and our eyes met.

“He said it was a Panasonic digital recorder and that he wanted four hundred dollars for it – a hundred for the recorder itself and three hundred for the story that was recorded on it. It was the strangest story that had ever come his way, he said, and a writer like me could use it to write a great novel.” — Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad

There are some books that can only be books. Some stories that can only be told through the written word. Sometimes, it’s for the devices they employ, or the fact that the story just isn’t believable as a film – as the two mediums require varying degrees of belief suspension. It is rare that I find stories that must be books because of the emotion in them. Because of the experience they offer, something personal that, once interpreted for the screen, loses its openness and potential. Usually, these stories come from outside of the Western World, mostly originating in Asia. Just how the Canadian short story leaves one hollow and changed on the inside, so does the Asian novel offer an experience with a specific thread that is so close to visual art – that it is meant to be interpreted, and left open.

Such is the case with Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, an award-winning novel originally published in 2013 but only just recently this year translated to English and published here.

“So what?” a few of you must be saying. “Another Frankenstein retelling. Woop-dee-doo. What’s so special about this?” I tell you, you have never read a novel retelling of Shelley’s tale like this. Sadaawi takes the story of Frankenstein and turns it on its head. Dr. Frankenstein is no longer a brooding university dropout (as such, should we really call him a doctor?). The creator of the abomination comes to us as one Hadi the junk dealer, also known as the creator of the Whatsitsname (aka Frankenstein’s monster).

Set in US-occupied Baghdad, this story is a tapestry of many vibrant threads. It follows the lives of many people – from the elderly Elishvha, searching for her son and speaking to saints, and Faraj the Realtor, taking advantage of the violence of the era, to Mahmoud al-Sawadi, a young journalist, and Abu Anmar, the owner of the Orouba Hotel – as the tale of the Whatsitsname is told and shakes their lives. (Some for the better, some for the worse.)

Throughout this novel, there is a sense of tension that I, being born and raised in the West, never experienced or understood. The constant threat of car bombings, suicide bombers, and brutal interrogations glares over this tale of wonder, belief, and vengeance like a looming storm, each lightning strike ready to smite another heart. It is a powerful awakening. It is a testament to these citizens, how each of them understands the magnitude of this violence and yet lives on through it. This story, behind its tale of magic, is of a brewing war and how one becomes accustomed but not quite entirely acclimated to the horrors.

What drew me to this book was the concept, and why Hadi built the Whatsitsname in the first place. Having come across missing limbs and body parts from various explosions, Hadi decided that the only way the government would give these parts a proper burial was if they were attached to a whole body. And so, he has collected enough to build a whole man in his shed in the hopes of the body being given the respect it deserves.

But instead, the Whatsitsname rises, alive, and sets out to take its revenge on those who harmed the people of which it is made. This is a tale of vengeance and spirituality, a question of morality. Who is the criminal? Who are innocent? Can these lines cross? Is there good violence? How far can revenge take a man or a monster, and is there a point of no return?

This book is deliciously deceptive, in that the language used is practical and precise. No jargon or poetry (though the work itself is art, undoubtedly), no reading sentences multiple times to understand them. Saadawi is straightforward and simple at his craft, which makes indulging in this novel all the easier. But the story itself is not to easily interpreted. As I said, it is art; and where I might see a hand extended in hope, another may see a fist curled in anger. Frankenstein in Baghdad uses the unreliable narrator, sowing doubt and questions in its readers. What (and who) are we to believe, and why?

Saadawi’s work is impeccably self-aware. Stories within stories, and a raw rip of reality slashed right down the centre of it. You have met these people before. Have lived with them, loved them, spent afternoons with them. He effortlessly weaves a tale of humour, horror, and ends it with a question in morality. Should it have ended that way? Is it fair? Do you agree with the Whatsitsname? With Mahmoud, with Saidi, with anyone?

What I have enjoyed the most in this novel is that Saadawi lets his characters feel in a realistic way. From Elishva’s hopeful grief and stubbornness to Mahmoud’s final emotions towards Saidi and Nawal al-Wazir. Above all, the story lays in the details. Hadi’s past, Abu Anmar’s hotel, the struggles within the Tracking and Pursuit Department. Saadawi plants the seeds that matter in these places, grounding the story, making it real.

This story could very well be a religious experience. Whether you go in searching for family, for war, for science fiction, for spirituality, or simply for a tale you can tell in a coffee shop, you will not be disappointed.

Author: cekinsella

Writer, gamer, roleplayer, dragonslayer.

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