Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterFrankenstein in Baghdad
By Ahmed Saadawi
Translated by Jonathan Wright
Hadi is a junk dealer, and like many of his wares he is broken. He has never been quite right since the death of his friend and business partner Nahem, who used a horse-drawn cart for pick-ups and deliveries around U.S.-occupied Baghdad. Nahem was a random victim of a car bomb. After the explosion, “It had been hard to separate Nahem’s flesh from that of his horse.”
One way Hadi deals with his grief is to start picking up stray body parts that have been overlooked and left behind after other bombings — a foot here, a nose there, chunks of flesh everywhere. He takes them home, stitches them together, and assembles a body.
“I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as trash, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial,” he explains at the local coffee shop, where everyone thinks he is spinning tall tales.
So begins Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi’s 2013 Arabic novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” now translated into English by Jonathan Wright. In one of two chapters that share the title “A Lost Soul,” one bombing victim is left with virtually no body at all. The man’s suddenly homeless spirit floats around a bit before settling into — and animating — the body that Hadi has made.
This creature, known as the Whatsitsname, begins seeking revenge on those responsible for the deaths of the people he is made of, but he defines “responsible” in a broad way. Each time a vendetta is satisfied, the relevant body part drops off, which means the Whatsitsname needs to find replacement parts to keep going — but the new parts come with new grudges, and his hit list gets longer and longer. The monster himself is often wearied and confused by all the killing, but he’s good at it and doesn’t know what else to do.
With his ever-changing face and patchwork of skin tones, the Whatsitsname seems to be a walking metaphor for a faction-ridden Iraqi society at war with itself.
But the monster’s ghastly and occasionally farcical exploits occur mostly offstage. The spotlight is mainly on a handful of human characters, particularly Hadi and a young man named Mahmoud, a member of Hadi’s coffee shop audience.
Mahmoud is a magazine journalist who hero-worships Saidi, his dashing and worldly boss. This infatuation is bound to end badly, as Saidi has many secrets.
One of those is a connection to the Tracking and Pursuit Department, a kind of Iraqi X-Files office where astrologers with hair gel in their beards submit predictions to the commanding general in pink envelopes.
When Mahmoud begins covering the Whatsitsname, the general reads one of his articles and is perturbed by how much information it contains — “but what could he do about the freedom of the press that had suddenly descended on the country?”
The full truth remains elusive for journalists and astrologers alike. Only one thing seems certain: The killings will go on.
Where to read
Almost anywhere in Japan amid the current summer heat. You’ll feel as if you’re in Baghdad yourself when you comes across lines such as, “Mahmoud felt he was starting to drown in his own sweat.”