Books

Ahmed Saadawi
Frankenstein in Baghdad

Anyone who’s read much about Daesh knows who created the monster and who is the Frankenstein in that particular horror show. Imagine thinking to avenge September 11, 2001 on Iraq, and in the process – despite ridding the world of Saddam Hussein – creating a spectral terrorism intent on the dominion of an extended caliphate, which has operated successfully as a state and has proved capable not only of military success but does a mean line in postmodern ascriptions of terrorism in every disturbed young alienate who’ll cry “Allahu Akbar” after some blind act of killing.

It’s not hard to see why Ahmed Saadawi should have seen all this as a rechannelling of Mary Shelley’s story of the scientist and the invented creature who gets out of hand. So we have a saga of a man who trades in rubbish and who decides that he might as well invest in bits of bodies that litter the streets after the bombs. And why not try sticking the parts together? Perhaps a composite corpse reeking with putrefaction will prove a suitable case for burial. Might that not be the only way to honour the dismemberment of Iraq as a consequence of political and military folly?

And so the monster roams and creates mayhem. It is a peculiar book partly because the somewhat grey and sturdy realism in which it begins, with its moving evocation of the grief of women mourning their menfolk old and young, is yoked to the helter-skelter amoralism of the horror story, with its rank and whiffy assaults on good taste. Saadawi ensures, by the care with which he creates a world that has been turned into rubble, that the realism is somehow a bit more compelling than magic.

Yet it might be true to say that the cumbersome nature of the central suspension of disbelief – the impossibility that is never quite rendered probable – is an allegory of the fact that Sadaawi can no more get his symbology and his instantiated realism together than anyone can do anything other than to point analytically to why Iraq and Syria and the whole shebang is so bewilderingly ghastly.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is an impressive, slightly thwarted novel in a mode not quite suited to its preoccupations. The residual incoherence of its central symbolism reflects the confusions of what it broods on, sometimes starkly, sometimes fantastically.  QSS

Oneworld, 320pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: QSS