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Friday, May 25, 2018

Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi

Book Review
Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013)
by Ahmed Saadawi

  Congratulations to author Olga Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft for their 2018 Booker International Prize win for their work on Tokarczuk's novel, Flights.  Frankenstein in Baghdad by Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi was a short-list nominee for the same prize, and I was finishing Frankenstein in Baghdad when the winner was announced.  It hasn't been easy to lay hands on the shortlist nominees, let alone the longlist nominees for this award.  Based in the UK, many of the titles either don't have a United States publisher or are only published after the nominations are announced.  I was pleased to find an Ebook copy in the Los Angeles Public Library, and I only had to wait a month to check out the copy.

  I was excited about reading Frankenstein in Baghdad because of the combination of theme and place.  Theme: the timeless modern tale of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Place: Iraq in the aftermath of the United States invasion (second), when Baghdad was a seething cauldron of oft violent competing interests. Into this familiar but little explored (in a literary sense) territory, Saadawi introduces his cast of characters, a Christian grandmother, deserted by her family, a junk dealer and the restless spirit of a Muslim security guard killed by a suicide bomber.

  Here, the creator of the corpse is not a doctor, but a junk-man, struggling to cope with the ongoing trauma of post-invasion Iraq.  He pieces the monster together from the body parts of bombing victims.  Shortly thereafter, the monster is infused by the spirit of the departed security guard and given shelter by the Christian grandmother, who thinks the monster is her long-dead son, Daniel.

  Meanwhile, a Baathist security officer, in charge of the supernatural crime unit of the Baghdadi police force, hunts the monster for reasons entirely his own. Saadawi uses a journalist as a major narrator and protagonist, simply to maneuver the awkwardness of featuring a monster as your main character. A lengthy portion is narrated by the monster himself, surely a violation of Frankenstein's monster canon.  Surely Frankenstein in Baghdad is a surreal take on a very real horror, and it is hard not to admire the work.  Major bonus points for an Iraqi novelist writing in Arabic.  Shame it didn't win!

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