Book Summary: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
A Terrifying Modern Take On A Classic Horror Story
A modern take on Mary Shelley's tale of a man composed of body parts and raised in the in interest of biology, this Frankenstein story has a far more sinister intent. Frankenstein In Baghdad, set in the backdrop of the U.S. occupation in Baghdad, a junk dealer named Hadi, creates his own form on the monster- with the intention of making the government realize the cost of the human lives in this crisis by cobbling together pieces of victims hoping that they will see a proper burial.
Told from several perspectives, residents and journalists occupying a nearby hotel to write pieces on the every day occurrences of bombings and violence, Ahmed Saadawi says more about the human condition in Frankenstein In Baghdad then perhaps most history book accounts on the issue and the book has been awarded The International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Living in the ruins of their city, in homes they refuse to abandon with missing roofs and collapsed upper levels, people like Elishva, an elderly Christian woman with adult daughters have since left the country to find safety in Australia, refuses to leave the country at her own risk with her falling apart house in the hopes that a son, Daniel that was drafted as a young teen will eventually return home.
Trying to take advantage of the situation, people like the realtor, Faraj try repeatedly to buy the crumbling homes out from under residents to expand properties like the hotel where the press is staying. He has some sort of respect for Hadi though, and says nothing about his constructed lean-to that perches against a still standing wall of Elishva's home that she refuses to leave.
When Hadi comes up with his idea for an effigy made of body parts of victims of terror attacks, he first feels that it will make a powerful statement to the government, or so he claims drunkenly at the cafe' with friends. His interest are a little more curious than political and actually after working on his creation, with a nose stolen from a victim here, some fingers taken off an officer than killed an innocent there, and bits of flesh hastily sewn together, Hadi is pleased enough with his creation until he passes out.
Naming it the Whatsit, the creature shambles into the next building, the home of Elishva out of curiosity, but like the story of Shelley's monster, it is shown kindness and the old woman thinks that her prayers to Saint George have been answered and that this meat puppet is somehow the soul of her son Daniel.
Having an identity now, Daniel begins to recover memories of where his parts have come from and a set of strange deaths begin around the city baffling the police force.
Like Mary Shelley's monster, once shown kindness and given the name of Elishva's missing son, Daniel, the monster now has an identity and a mission.
Parts And Memory
Daniel, the Whatsit, or even Suspect X as he is also known by the police and media- remembers crimes that the parts of him were connected to and tries to right those wrongs by killing avenging those that were harmed. The pieces that make up Daniel feed his memory, and when he has done this task, that piece then falls off. After awhile, Daniel feels that he is starting to flake apart but those that knew about Hadi's creation only seek to re-infuse life and more purpose into their fleshy weapon by replacing the failing portions.
Daniel continues to kill.
In the meantime various journalists are tracing the story and Mahmoud even gets a taped confession tape from Daniel explaining the whole situation from his point of view. Mahmoud plans to release the story but is detained by the police and for a short time suspect to the crimes.
Faraj in the meantime still continues to try to get the properties like Elishva's and actually has someone come to her home posed as her son to get her to sign over her home, which he finally occupies.
Daniel finds out about this and does what he can to help his first friend after she is swindled by the realtor.
In the daily violence, eventually Hadi is caught in an explosion and though alive is disfigured enough that he is taken into custody and accused of being the monster that is killing people that the journalists like Mahmoud have been writing about.
Daniel goes back to what is left of Elishva's home and spends the night snuggled with her last remaining cat as so many of her other pets had been killed during the daily events like the bombings that destroyed most of her home,
Eventually when the neighborhood where Elishva's home was located is expanded into the grounds of the hotel, the cat is present and being petted by a strange man that no one really gets a good look at- hinting that Daniel may have added more pieces to himself and was now out of hiding as Hadi has been arrested for terrorism in connection to all these deaths.
Frankenstein In Baghdad is a captivating read not only encapsulating a time in history that I don't recall much about as I was about in junior high and only hearing about the details of war through what aired on the nightly news. To see this perspective of daily life from an Arabic perspective and understand the hopes and values of these people are all the same as our own, painted with the backdrop of this haunting modern horror story was really grotesque and beautiful at the same time.
This novel is a chilling read and hard to put down, in fact I finished it in about two sittings. The clash of historic events and a modern take on the Frankenstein monster was purely brilliant.
Ahmed Saadawi has also received France's Grand Prize for Fantasy and is a documentary filmmaker, and poet.