Monday, January 18, 2021

Review of Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

The past centuries of book publishing in the Western world has seen a slow but steady expansion. The point we’re at now is barely recognizable from the era it began. Where novels were once extremely limited by literacy, class, and publishing possibilities, they are today a ubiquitous item available to anybody (libraries, people!) in quantities it is literally impossible for any one person to even make a significant dent in reading the entirety of. With globalization, this has likewise meant a massive cross-pollination. It is only possible in the past few decades that books like Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014) can be made available to the wider, global audience. Having read the book, I’d like to think the globe is better off for it.

Frankenstein in Baghdad focuses on the lives of a handful of people living in the titular city in the early 2000s after Western forces have taken control of Iraq. Things kick off with a bomb blast, a blast which sends these people’s lives spinning in different directions. The handful come and go, meaning the majority of the book focuses on Hadi. A junk dealer before the blast, he becomes a body-part collector after, eventually assembling his collection into something more. A strong secondary character is a journalist who finds himself not only with the task of reporting on a series of inexplicable murders, but also in a surprisingly newfound position of power at his publication—his boss’s actions just as much an inexplicable mystery. With American soldiers on the streets, locals living in uncertainty, and society, economics, politics, and power in a massive state of flux, what role does a man pieced together from body parts have to play?

I read a review on Amazon (I know, not the most trustworthy source…) complaining of Frankenstein in Baghdad’s lack of quality exposition, plot and character development. Check boxes beside all these—if it mattered. To be 100% clear, if you’re entering this novel looking for the latest thriller or horror, look elsewhere. Exposition, plot, and character all exist in strong proportion, but they are tools servicing the higher gods of social and political commentary, that is, rather than the quotidian gods of ‘good story’. Saadawi’s goal is a balance of immersion in tale and getting the reader thinking about the tale they are in.

Saadawi accomplishes this foremost by representing daily life in Baghdad realistically. Something the majority of Western readers encounter solely through the media, the novel both confirms and upends those impressions, which gets the mental gears turning. Setting them spinning is the role his stitched-together creature plays in the conflict. Without spoiling matters, it’s fair to say it’s a role that aligns to Shelley’s conception of the monster. But where her monster struggled predominantly with identity, Saadawi’s struggles with socio-political identity—a facet of daily life everywhere, but one thrown into major turmoil by the West’s invasion of Iraq. Rather than feeling like reality thrust upon a metaphor, Saadawi’s usage of the monster feels more natural, more organic than that, a natural, poetic expression that just so happens to borrow from world literature.

In the end, a lot of people may want to ask: Does Saadawi’s novel achieve the heights of its source material? I would respond by saying Frankenstein in Baghdad was not aiming for those stars, and therefore should not be held in comparison. While the novel does broadly take into account the human condition, Saadawi’s commentary is more focused on a specific aspect: the human condition in Iraq in the early 21st century. Bringing a number of factors to bear—social, economic, political, and religious, Saadawi avoids focusing on victimhood or playing the blame game (both of which would have been extremely easy things to do), and instead transcends those local concerns by focusing on a spectrum of life as it views, interacts, and is affected by strife in the Middle East. Domestic to national concerns coming to light, the novel excellently interrelates any politicized narratives the reader may have previously come in contact with, offering instead a deeper, metaphorical view, by turns sharp, clever, and always human—even if sutured together. Me, sitting in the Western world, reading an Arabic novel deploying a Western motif to strong effect, translated into English, commenting on the conflict between those sides is amazing. The world of fiction has come a long way.

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