The spirit of an age is best captured in the artistic visions inspired by the times. This rings true in both the visual and literary arts. The Middle East has been the center of the world situation for so long that in the West we cannot think of the region without evoking words such as “crisis” and “war.” Since 2001 the region has experienced the crucible of foreign occupation, the eruption of revolutions and civil wars. But from the fire is emerging a new generation of authors grappling with the collapse and reshaping of their region via some of the most impressive literature being produced in the world today. A renaissance in Middle East fiction is upon us, and like the Latin Boom of the 1960s, it is literature magical in its creativity and haunting in its statements. Just published for the first time in English is one of this movement’s great achievements, Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi.
Saadawi’s gritty, bloody tale is both fantasy and a visceral political document. Set in Iraq in 2005, it is horror utilized as metaphor for the nightmare of a society tearing itself apart amid a crushing invasion by the world hegemon. Its characters are far from romanticized, or even heroic, they are instead written like very real individuals enduring a Dantenean reality. The monster of this tale, called the Whatitsname, is not simply a creation formed from different body parts. It is instead a walking, terrible symbol for a country, a region and an era we are still living through. In terms of literary power, Saadawi has created a specter as striking as Goya’s painting, Saturn Devouring His Son.
The main character of the novel is a Baghdad vagabond named Hadi, a junk dealer who wanders the streets of his divided city under the sound of American military helicopters. Occasionally a suicide bombing will take place, but people have become so accustomed to it that after the initial shock they return to business as usual. It is two years into the U.S. occupation and the population has learned to live day by day. When Hadi is not collecting junk he sits in local cafes telling friends and other locals plainly invented, entirely outlandish stories of adventures he has supposedly experienced.
But Hadi has another obsession—collecting the body parts of victims of the various suicide bombings now plaguing the area. He takes the pieces and attaches them to a corpse he keeps hidden in a shed. Made-up of various human parts, Hadi has designed this morbid creation as a reckoning. The orphaned body parts deserve a proper burial in Hadi’s view, instead of being left displaced and spattered in the streets of the city. Hadi has no way of knowing that soon his creation will come to life and prowl the streets in search of vengeance.
Saadawi, in telling this gothic and grotesque story, abandons the Romantic origins of its predecessor. The title is not taken from the novel in an attempt at updating Mary Shelley’s tale; rather, it riffs in the form of an eager newspaper editor’s search for a scandalous headline. Saadawi, however, does render homage to the classic, opening the novel with a quote from Shelley’s work, “Yet I ask you not to spare me; and then, if you can, and if you will, destroy the work of your hands.” Yet Saadawi’s language is never dense or an attempt at aping the classic tale; he instead writes with a feverish, urgent pen dismissive of too much style.
Instead of looking to the Romantics, Saadawi plunges into gritty noir. His novel is a gallery of lost, wandering and lonely characters coping with a world which has become violent and uncertain. Mahmoud is a young and ambitious journalist fleeing from his hometown to escape the past. He admires his publisher, Ali Baher al-Saidi, who knows all the power players and appears to be having an affair with a beautiful filmmaker, Nawal al-Wazir. Nawal becomes an obsession for Mahmoud, who dreams of her and goes so far as to seek out a prostitute with a close resemblance. These characters resemble the urban middle class of Baghdad pretending to carry on as professionals even as the U.S. occupation casts its long and looming shadow and the shells of terrorism bloodily interrupts. Down below in the depths of society the common citizen endures the real brunt of the war. The most tragic character of the novel is Elishva, an elderly Christian Assyrian who fantasizes about her son Daniel returning home two decades after being hauled away by the Saddam Hussein regime to fight in the war against Iran. When Hadi’s monster, The Whatitsname, appears at her doorstep, she can only believe it to be her son and she takes it in. The monster will bring together the two worlds of the novel as the military and the press learn about this creation, especially once it begins hunting down those who did injury to the original owners of its body parts: the army will seek to destroy it while the press needs, naturally, a good story.
There have been few powerful allegories published in recent memory like Frankenstein in Baghdad. The Whatitsname is not simply a monster, it is a personification of the pernicious fruit of the Iraq War and its regional consequences—the shattering of lives, the scattering of societies and the terrifying outgrowths of the war. The country itself was torn into pieces, sectarian war providing the bloody theater of carnage as Sunnis and Shias targeted each other in civil war. Did the masters of war know what they would conjure with the invasion? 11 years on and the rise of ISIS in Iraq, the death cult’s storming of the Syrian frontier took shape like a terrible, unwanted creation that formed from the ashes of the 2003 war and its subsequent occupation.
The novel’s most powerful chapter is fully narrated by the Whatitsname. Mahmoud hands Hadi a tape recorder and allows him to give it to the monster so it can record itself. Here the monster speaks in a cadence akin to messianic radicalism, stating “I will finally bring about justice on earth, and there will no longer be a need to wait in agony for justice to come, in heaven or after death.” By uniting all sects and local groups through the structure of his body, the Whatitsname calls itself “the first true Iraqi citizen.” It forms of a small group of assistants, including a madman who believes it is the true second coming, a divine entity which will cleanse the world. When the police or military find it their bullets are of no use. Instead, his body begins to fall apart piece by piece when a limb or organ has been avenged.
Saddawi’s reckoning via fiction is part of a wider generation of Middle Eastern writers exploring the cataclysm of their region through novels of immense breadth and force. Many of these titles have made their way west through excellent English translations. In The Queue, Egypt’s Basma Abdel Aziz imagines a futuristic Cairo where an Orwellian monolith watches over a population living desperately under a totalitarian order. Whether one needs a loan or medical aid, it is a centralized authority known as The Gate which grants an answer. Saleem Hadad’s Guapa follows the life of a gay man in an unnamed Middle East country amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring. One of the greatest of these recent novels is Otared by Mohammad Rabie, a hallucinatory, intense novel about a cop turned assassin in Egypt in the year 2025. It is a novel of fierce political commentary akin to the works of China Mieville, but placed within a nightmare world aglow with searing imagery. Even Rabie’s main character carries out his missions wearing a Buddha mask, now turned into an image of fatality.
The thread which courses through these novels and Frankenstein in Baghdad is the iconoclastic disillusion with power and a loss of faith in the future. Saadawi’s novel is set during the Iraq War, but its spirit is similar to the other works cited in that they emerge in the heartbreak following the 2011 Arab Spring. The great revolutionary wave of that year has receded into new, authoritarian regimes or infernal wars. In Egypt the roar of Tahrir Square has been silenced by a new military regime, Syria spiraled into a civil war now involving the great powers, Libya has fractured into sections run by war lords and Yemen is a humanitarian disaster. In The Queue and Otared, the authors reference an unspecified “revolution” which failed and is erased from history by new regimes. Indeed, the current Egyptian government quietly ignores the anniversaries of 2011 while jailing opponents. These novels are worthy heirs to works such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat and Roberto Bolano’s Distant Star, where the novel is used as a potent tool to capture the very essence of political power transformed into torture chambers. In Bolano’s novel a Chilean military pilot begins skywriting disturbing bits of poetry in the era of the military coup which overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Like these new novels emerging from the Arab world, it is the kind of fiction which captures the essence of a historical moment better than any academic study. In Saadawi’s novel all institutions, including the press, are corrupt and bought off. Editors please the powerful while the poor are berated by the security forces. So corrupt was the system no wonder it easily crashed under the weight of a foreign invasion.
In Frankenstein in Baghdad, the Whatitsname is a response to the silence of history, carrying out the vengeance the average Iraqi is powerless to exert. Saadawi is not above using black magic for the rites of his novel, as a secret government task force uses psychics and card readers to investigate strange, paranormal occurrences in Baghdad. So extreme is the situation that surely dark forces must be involved. There are reminders here of China Mieville’s lighter but no less striking Last Days of New Paris, in which he imagines the Surrealists waging war against the Nazi occupiers of Paris by calling up living surrealist art. In response the Nazis use fascist warlocks to create their own, horrific beasts to do battle with the liberating art of the Surrealists. Mieville and Saadawi understand in a metaphorical sense that the warmongers and fascists of history use politics and weapons in a séance where malevolent forces are conjured for the sake of power. In Saadawi’s novel Elishva prays and speaks to a painting of St. George as he slays the dragon. But he has no faith in her devotion, and all the praying she can muster will do little to ward off the tragedies, deceits and horrors plaguing the occupied city.
It is fitting the Saadawi chose Frankenstein as the model for his tale. The original novel by Mary Shelley was itself a response to the tumultuous spirit of her own time, of a Europe still living under the shadow of the French Revolution and the more fiery embers of the Enlightenment. Saadawi’s monster was created for a different moment in history, where idealism itself has been replaced by a blinding nihilism. His characters never utter heroic slogans or even express any interest in radical politics. They are instead trapped in the nightmare of history. Like his peers, Saadawi seems haunted by a region which cannot taste hope for long, in which the masses remain resilient yet tire of having victory soon taste like ashes. But can we truly detach ourselves as western readers from its premise? We cannot, because no civilization is innocent, and at some point every society has to face its own Whatisname.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.