Book Review

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi tr. by Jonathan Wright


From the rubble-strewn streets of US-occupied Baghdad, Hadi collects body parts from the dead, which he stitches together to form a corpse.

He claims he does it to force the government to recognise the parts as real people, and give them a proper burial.

But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps across the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking, flesh-eating monster that cannot be killed. At first it’s the guilty he attacks, but soon it’s anyone who crosses his path…

Frankenstein in Baghdad brilliantly captures the horror and black humour of a city at war.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is presented as a series of documents assembled by an individual referred to only as “the author”.  These documents provide the perspective of multiple characters as a number of murders occur in Baghdad, initially targeting those who many might argue deserve their fate, but that soon comes to encompass those who might be considered innocent, relatively speaking.  What I like about this approach is that we see the same events from those different points of view.  What might seem vague initially gradually becomes clearer, and this helps the reader to build up an idea of what’s going on without necessarily revealing everything at once.  It works well to provide an engaging narrative that rewards the reader as the novel progresses.

Set in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, the reader is invited into the US-occupied city of Baghdad.  It’s a setting that allows the exploration of a strange juxtaposition as the characters we follow go through the everyday tasks that are familiar to many – commuting, visiting a café etc. – against the regular explosions and continued military presence in the city.  What is perhaps most striking is the way in which the bombs and explosions – whatever the cause – seem so every day.  People barely bat an eyelid, seeming resigned to such events and the damage caused while to an outsider it sounds truly terrifying. 

Amongst all of this there is Hadi who assembles a body from the dismembered body parts he finds around the city.  The aim seems to be to force the authorities to recognise and acknowledge the casualties and vast numbers of individuals who have vanished, whereabouts unknown, and the number of dead who go unrecognised and unremarked.  Upon completion, however, the body disappears before he can decide what to do with it.  Hadi’s motivation stems from losing a good friend and business partner – something else that seems all too common – with no idea as to his fate beyond the assumptions he is forced to make.  This seems to have spurred him in to making the authorities take note, and yet the reader wonders if there’s a sense of relief when the body does go AWOL – would it be wise for Hadi to draw attention to himself in this way in this city at this time?

They are accusing me of committing crimes, but what they don’t understand is that I’m the only justice in this country.

Throughout the novel, the theme of justice is explored, and Saadawi posits that there are three kinds of justice: legal justice, divine justice, and street justice.  When the first of these seems entirely absent, and the second a long time coming, it’s understandable that people might turn to the third option to see wrongs made right.  For me, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a novel about obtaining justice for those who are caught up in war that isn’t theirs, and highlights the way in which innocent lives are affected by warfare – the so-called “collateral damage” of such events. 

Frankenstein in Baghdad takes the bare bones of Mary Shelley’s novel and adds something new in the idea of victims of war and its aftermath seeking recognition and justice.  There are elements of gothic horror to it, but also a morbid humour that runs throughout as we follow the lives of these characters and Hadi’s “whatsitsname” as it seeks justice for those it is comprised of.  Throughout, the pointlessness of war is highlighted as well as the realities of life in a post-war Iraq.  A dark and compelling narrative, the slightly fantastical elements lighten the tone and lend something different to the novel.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is published by Oneworld Publications and is available in paperback and eBook formats.


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