My rating: 3 stars
The idea behind Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi is certainly ingenious. Inspired by Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein, it portrays the religious diversity of Baghdad, the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its consequences through a tale about the appearance of a terrifying creature. However, the book feels too much like a patchwork of various events and characters, which makes sense considering the theme of the story but doesn’t turn it into a fully engaging read.
After the death of his friend Nahem, who was victim of a car bomb, Hadi became aggressive. For a while he threw stones at the police. He started drinking during the day and didn’t wash his clothes. But he also liked telling stories. Sometime afterwards, he started collecting body parts from those who had died at explosions, since he wanted the victims to be properly buried. He stitched them together, forming a corpse that represented people from diverse backgrounds. He called the corpse Whatsisname. One day the corpse disappeared from his house, though.
Elishva, a Christian woman, gave life to the corpse by calling him Daniel. She lived alone with her cat in a big house, as her two daughters had moved to Australia. Although there was a grave with the name of her son, Daniel, in the cemetery, she believed that he was still alive. Elishva has an interesting backstory and her struggle to deal with the death of her son is moving.
Many characters are introduced throughout the book, but none of them feel as genuine as Elishva. The majority of them don’t feel whole. Despite their characteristics being concisely mentioned, they neither feel truly real nor a fundamental part of the story. It doesn’t help that we are constantly being told what the characters did, but the bulk of their actions don’t help us form a clear and lively picture of who they are as individuals.
Pages of monotony are, thankfully, occasionally interspersed with moments of brilliance. The first-person testimony by Whatsisname is undeniably compelling, the use of an ironic tone when certain political issues are mentioned deserves applause, and the exploration of the role of revenge and fundamentalism in the conflict is thought-provoking.
Nevertheless, Frankenstein in Baghdad is unfortunately too disjointed and, overall, full of bland prose, when I expected it to be either scary or humorous.