Winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction
Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018
Translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright
A C19th classic is brought up to date in a most ingenious and – dare I say it? – explosive manner.
I last caught sight of Frankenstein in the Arctic iceflows. He has now reappeared in the heat of the Middle East, amidst the scorching flames and suicide bombings of Baghdad; his body a composite of body parts from the victims of such violence, stitched together by Hadi, a junk dealer, traumatised by the sudden, brutal, loss of his business partner and the impossibility of giving his blown-to-smithereens remains a decent burial.
Whatitsname, as Hadi names him (evoking the neutrality of Shelley’s “creature”), however, needs the injection of life. Nothing as simple as an electrical current for Saadawi, but a mystical element- the soul of a suicide bombing victim, which (who?) cannot find enough of its own body in which to settle. And once settled in the patchwork corpse starts on the task of bringing justice to the murderers of its composite body parts.
There’s one problem. Once retribution has been served on the original criminal, the avenged body part melts, necessitating the Baghdadian Frankenstein to source a replacement, ensuring the continuation of the murderous cycle. At which point, the analogy becomes clear. How will we ever end modern-day blood-letting?
For the ambition of Saadawi’s novel transcends its packaging both as a literary homage and horror novel. It is a study of the impact of war on a civilian population and the absurdity of governmental forces and logic. Saadawi’s cast of characters is wider than Shelley’s, which is mostly restricted to the cast of Dr Frankenstein and his immediate family. Here we see the viewpoints of tbe family of Baghdad: the junk dealer, the young conscript. his elderly mother, who never recovers from his loss, the property dealer on the make, and perhaps, more absurdly, a team of psychics in the employ of the government’s “Tracking and Pursuit Department”. Their mission? To predict the site of the next suicide bombing, and, in the course of time, track down the rampaging murderer.
Suspension of disbelief is essential to the appreciation of this novel replete with fantastical elements. Though these are mixed with a reality that I would argue is more horrific than the horror genre evoked in the plot. (Seriously, can you imagine the everyday possibility of never returning home from a trip to the market?) Yet while there are many adjectives I would use to describe Saadawi’s novel – fantastic, nightmarish, thought-provoking, mesmerising among them – funny, or even wickedly funny, as cited in the blurbs, didn’t occur to me for one second. Admittedly the psychics provide some light relief, but for me, they’re sugar coating masking a very bitter pill.