Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad

Set in 2005, after the US invasion of Iraq, Ahmed Sadaawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad both is, and is not, what it says on the tin.

Narratively and formally, it is. A junk dealer named Hadi assembles a composite corpse out of the human body parts littering the explosion-wracked streets of Baghdad. It’s possessed by the ghost of a security guard killed in one of those explosions, and animated by the command of an old woman who thinks the corpse is her long-dead son. The resulting creature haunts the city’s streets, trying to justify his existence and avoid the authorities bent on his destruction. Like Mary Shelley’s original, his story is told in nested found narratives: first, a report put together by an unnamed journalist; second, a tape recording made by the creature himself.

Unlike Shelley’s novel, though, the focus of Frankenstein in Baghdad is not really, or not quite, the creature; he is merely the uncanny feature that unites them. (More on this in a moment.) Sadaawi’s writerly gaze lands on a number of lives, all of them affected by the conflict tearing Baghdad apart: Hadi the junk dealer, the old woman who borrows the priest’s mobile phone to call her daughters once a week, the owner of a failing hotel, a journalist unexpectedly promoted to editor. As Sessily Watt points out here, war creates in each of these characters’ lives some sort of absence – whether it’s the absence of relatives who’ve moved out of Iraq in search of greater stability, the absence of once-abundant hotel guests and thus a viable livelihood, or simply the absence of trust in those around them.

The creature literalises these absences. And he does that by refusing to be read, to be fully understood as a phenomenon. As (almost) the sole speculative element in an otherwise realist world, he is contextless, without framework. A cult springs up around him, reading him as prophet/messiah: they are wrong. The authorities read him as a dangerous but human criminal: they are wrong. He is unreadable because his existence is irrational: he doesn’t make sense within the worldviews of those around him.

In other words, he represents, in Lacanian terms, an irruption of the Real into the world of the text: the Real that lies behind the symbolic structures we impose on the world, to make sense of it. Structures like family, society, nationhood – which are the structures damaged by war. So the creature is a literalisation of the unspeakable trauma visited on a city, a community, that is every day faced with the prospect of random annihilation. Car bombs don’t discriminate, after all. There’s no rhyme or reason to who they kill. Traditional realism on its own isn’t very good at dealing with that specific flavour of irrationality, because it’s based on the idea that life in all its mundanity is fundamentally narratable – so having speculative elements do that work makes a lot of sense.

Hence the found-footage-type framing of the novel. What Frankenstein in Baghdad does share with its predecessor is this sense of uncertainty: do we really know what happened, through two or three layers of reportage? This is Shelley’s Gothic in play, these gaps between the edges of the characters’ reported experience. In Sadaawi’s novel, this further destabilises our sense of the rationality of realism: the invasion of Iraq has brought utter chaos to Baghdad, together with an almost apocalyptic sense that all the rules of lived human experience are breaking down. The centre cannot hold.

I’m interested in what Sadaawi’s doing here, but at the same time I’m not sure I’d read Frankenstein in Baghdad again. It’s a little too bleak and airless; too…controlled to really grab me. But it’s good SF work: it would have been interesting to see this on the Hugo shortlist, for example, and I’m half-surprised that it’s not being talked about more in genre circles.

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