Review of ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ by Ahmed Saadawi

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This remarkable book is political rather than technological science fiction, because instead of electricity the creature is reanimated by the spirit of a soldier killed in a suicide bombing a couple of years after the pointless invasion of Iraq in 2003. Spirit is a key theme in the book, the spirit of Baghdad in particular, which is pretty much a character in itself. It feels like a timeless place, as people of all races, ages and beliefs rub along in small suburb where everyone knows each other.

The novel has a measured pace, and a lovely, almost folkloric tone that is utterly unlike anything else I’ve read. It’s a translation, but such a good one at times I felt I was actually there, although I’ve never been.

The most powerful – and science fictional – sequence is the one narrated by the creature himself, as his disparate coalition of insane followers speed through a whole cultural/religious evolution before inevitably imploding. Similarly, the creature is compelled to replace the rotting pieces of his own body with new parts, and faces the quandary of choosing body parts from innocents, whose deaths he is then compelled to avenge, or criminals, whose influence on him he cannot always control.

For all the solid-feeling sense of place, delusion abounds: an elderly woman is convinced her son will return to her even though he died in the Iran-Iraq war twenty years earlier, one of the best characters other than the creature is a junk trader who tells stories everyone knows aren’t true, and a newspaper editor compels his protégé to find the truth, even while conning the state out of millions.

And then of course there’s the wretched US/UK invasion itself, first of the increasingly regular gargantuan cons that have characterised the new millennium. The titular creature, whose name is deliberately blurred with his creator, is the perfect expression of these constantly shifting realities as he kindly tries to fill in for the old woman’s missing son while carrying out acts of ritualistically senseless violence.

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