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Frankenstein in Baghdad
SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE 2018
SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE 2018
WINNER OF THE INTERNATIONAL PRIZE FOR ARABIC FICTION
'Extraordinary... A devastating but essential read.' Kevin Powers, bestselling author and National Book Award finalist for The Yellow Birds
'Gripping, darkly humorous...profound.' Phil Klay, bestselling author and National Book Award winner for Redeployment
From the rubble-strewn streets of US-occupied Baghdad, the scavenger Hadi collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and give them a proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realises he has created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive - first from the guilty, and then from anyone who crosses its path.
An extraordinary achievement, Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humour the surreal reality of a city at war.
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This book is a revelation. Impeccably and tightly written, it weaves the darkest of humour and keen satire with everyday community episodes in a way that makes it one of a kind. Reading this, you will experience shock, fear, confusion, pity, amusement, curiosity and sadness - sometimes all at the same time. It is a soap opera spliced with horror and will leave you contemplating war, society and justice long after you close the pages.
We are in Baghdad in 2005. Over the course of this year and against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein’s trial for crimes against humanity (notably this is never mentioned), the city is to experience repeated suicide bombings and massive destabilisation. The thread of the plot is centred on Hadi, the junk dealer and prolific spinner of yarns who, after he experiences the loss of a friend to a bomb, begins to collect body parts and stitch them together. He’s unsure about his own motivations but forms a vague plan to use the corpse as a protest.
Circumstance intervenes to embed the corpse with a restless spirit who begins a campaign of vengeance which evolves into one of survival resulting in a series of murders more gruesome and terrifying than even the daily threat of bombing. Is this justice correct? Was any action in the name of justice in Iraq correct? Is it today?
To understand the impact of the murders, we need to understand the community. This is something that readers and viewers in the west typically struggle to do. Surveying events via the BBC, all we see is another bombing, another incomprehensible loss of life. So it was in the mid 00’s with Iraq and not much has changed for many news reports of events in Syria to this day.
Ahmed Saadawi has created a community in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Bataween that is so complex, warm and real that its normality plays a huge part in establishing a sense of shock. Gruesome events and ghastly actions are set against the normality of the gossipy coffee house, office politics, family tensions, unrequited lust. The cast is considerable, so that the character list at the start of the book proves extremely helpful.
Elishva is elderly, almost blind and living with decades of grief. She is an Assyrian Christian who holds real or imagined conversations with Saint George the Martyr. Aziz is an Egyptian who runs the coffee shop that is host to much of the storytelling. Mahmoud is an aspirational journalist who frets over his heritage, worrying that his family “were not real Arabs”. Faraj the estate agent and Abu Anmar the hotel owner are both interlopers engaged in a battle of business, with the former on the up and the latter rapidly declining.
This is a diverse community of very personal characters who I found appealing for better or for worse, with dynamics that are not dissimilar to any village across the globe. Their circumstances convene to make the existence of the Whatsitsname possible, even for it to thrive. The Whatsitsname itself is physically formed of all ethnicities, all faiths, criminal and innocent, strong and weak. It is a representation of the diversity of society, the conflicts within each one of us.
This make up of the Whatsitsname makes it something other than a monster. Despite its crimes, it becomes an everyman. In a tone of writing that reminded me of Crime and Punishment (but funnier), it is driven by a sense of self preservation. Aren’t we all, but at what cost?
Of course, no commentary on events in Iraq would be complete without a nod to corruption; within the media, government, armed forces and community at large. It’s everywhere. As the Whatsitsname discovers, no one is innocent. Metaphor is strong in this story, and Saadawi succeeds in achieving poignancy without becoming overly righteous. What is great about this book is that despite its horror, it remains completely, utterly and possibly ironically, human.
`Saadawi's strange, violent and wickedly funny book borrows heavily from the science fiction canon, and pays back the debt with interest: it is a remarkable achievement, and one that, regrettably, is unlikely ever to lose its urgent relevancy.' * <i>Guardian</i> * `[Saadawi is] Baghdad's new literary star.' * <i>New York Times</i> * `Ahmed Saadawi has wrenched a fable that puts a cherished Romantic myth to urgent new use... In their bicentenary year, Mary Shelley's scientist and his creature will take plenty of contemporary spins. Surely, no updated journey will be more necessary than Saadawi's... A nightmarish, but horridly hilarious, tale... Sinister, satirical, ferociously comic but oddly moving.' * <i>Spectator</i> * `Frankenstein in Baghdad is complex but very readable and darkly humorous; it has well-observed characters, whose back stories reflect the wider context. The monster is a metaphor both for the physical horrors of Iraq, and for the development of groups within that chaos. The translation by Jonathan Wright is first-rate.' * <i>Times Literary Supplement</i> * `Helped by Jonathan Wright's elegant and witty translation, which reaches for and attains bracing pathos, Saadawi's novel mixes a range of characters and their voices to surprising, even jolting effect...a remarkable book.' * <i>Observer</i> * `A darkly delightful novel... Detective story and satire as well as gothic horror, Frankenstein in Baghdad provides a tragicomic take on a society afflicted by fear, and a parable concerning responsibility and justice.' * <i>New Statesman</i> * `Frankenstein in Baghdad is more than just a black comedy. It's as much of a crossbreed as its ghoulish hero - part thriller, part horror, part social commentary... Saadawi, slickly translated by Jonathan Wright, captures the atmosphere of war-torn Baghdad with the swiftest of penstrokes, and picks out details that make the reader feel, and even taste, the aftermath of the explosions that pepper the book.' * <i>Financial Times</i> * `Saadawi's novel...is more than an extended metaphor for the interminable carnage in Iraq and the precarious nature of its body politic. It also intimately depicts the lives of those affected by the conflict [and] offer[s] a glimpse into the day-to-day experiences of a society fractured by bloodshed.' * <i>The Economist</i> * `In the 200 years since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, her monster has turned up in countless variations - but few of them have been as wild or politically pointed as the monster in Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad.' * <i>New York Times</i> * `An extraordinary piece of work. With uncompromising focus, Ahmed Saadawi takes you right to the wounded heart of war's absurd and tragic wreckage. A devastating but essential read.' * Kevin Powers, bestselling author of the National Book Award finalist <i>The Yellow Birds</i> * `This adroitly written literary fiction ingeniously blends absurdist horror with a mordantly funny satire about life in a war-torn city... Extraordinary in its scope and inventiveness.' * <i>Irish Times</i> * `A bold literary conceit and executed with some aplomb.' * <i>Mail on Sunday</i> * 'A fantastical manifestation of war's cruelties... Saadawi blends the unearthly, the horrific and the mundane to terrific effect... There's a freshness to both his voice and vision... What happened in Iraq was a spiritual disaster, and this brave and ingenious novel takes that idea and uncorks all its possible meanings.' * <i>New York Times Book Review</i> * 'Frankenstein in Baghdad gives an intimate, tragicomic look at the Iraq War through the lens of a small neighbourhood in U.S.-occupied Baghdad... Come for the fascinating plot; stay for the dark humour and devastating view of humanity.' * <i>Washington Post</i> * 'Frankenstein in Baghdad is a profound, powerful and extraordinarily imaginative work. Part thriller, part horror story, part supernatural fantasy, part meditation on violence and justice, it is both harrowing and darkly comic.' * <i>Banipal</i> * `A devastating but essential read.' * <i>Western Morning News</i> * `This darkly funny fantasy...is a brilliant creature in its own right.' * <i>Prospect</i> * `A modern-day parable that exposes the reality of living in 21st century Baghdad, a city riven by fear and blame, but in which humanity and humour somehow endure.' * <i>New Internationalist</i> * `Brilliantly conceived...feels both timely and prescient.' * <i>Totally Dublin</i> * 'Saadawi strikes a feverish balance between fantasy and hard realism in Frankenstein in Baghdad... Baghdad-born and still living the Iraqi capital, [he] delivers a vision of his war-mangled city that's hard to forget.' * <i>The Seattle Times</i> * 'Ahmed Sadaawi's darkly comic fable is a fusion of the surreal, the gothic and bleak reality... A poignant and painful portrayal of a country whose ghosts have yet to be exorcised.' * <i>Literary Review</i> * 'Powerful...surreal...darkly humorous... Cleverly conscripts a macabre character from a venerable literary work in the service of a modern-day cautionary fable... An excellent English translation.' * <i>Chicago Tribune</i> * 'Frankenstein in Baghdad is an intriguing and inventive appropriation of a classic tale which underlines the endless possibilities for novels of war.' * <i>Bath Life Magazine</i> * 'A macabre yet bleakly funny spin on the story of Frankenstein which vividly captures the atmosphere of a city at war.' * <i>Book Riot</i> * 'Brilliant... Crisp, moving, and mordantly humorous... Like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, Frankenstein in Baghdad plays the absurd normality of war for dark humour... The monster is a powerful metaphor, but the real reason the novel works is because Saadawi writes with a rare combination of generosity, cruelty, and black humour. He has a journalist's eye for detail and a cartoonist's sense of satire.' * <i>The New Republic</i> * 'A harrowing and affecting look at the day-to-day life of war-torn Iraq.' * <i>Publishers Weekly</i> * 'Frankenstein in Baghdad is a graphic portrait of perpetual war. [It] assembles from the carnage of the ongoing crisis in Iraq a monster that, echoing Mary Shelley's creation, reflects back upon us the inhumanity of our own actions and the ways war spirals out of control, leaving devastation in its wake.' * <i>Lit Hub</i> * 'As with any great literary work, this novel doesn't just tell a story. Rather, it unfolds across multiple dimensions, each layer peeling back to reveal something new... Exquisitely translated by Jonathan Wright, this novel breaks through the superficial news stories and helps us see more clearly what the American invasion has wrought, how violence begets violence, and how tenuous is the line between innocence and guilt. Brilliant and horrifying, Frankenstein in Baghdad is essential reading.' * <i>World Literature Today</i> * 'Outrageously adroit...this haunting novel brazenly confronts the violence visited upon this country by those who did not call it home. A startling way to teach an old lesson: an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.' * <i>Kirkus</i> * 'There is no shortage of wonderful, literate Frankenstein reimaginings...but few so viscerally mine Shelley's story for its metaphoric riches... In graceful, economical prose, Saadawi places us in a city of ghosts, where missing people return all the time, justice is fleeting, and even good intentions rot... A haunting and startling mix of horror, mystery, and tragedy.' * <i>Booklist</i>, starred review * 'This gripping, darkly humorous fable of post-invasion Baghdad is a profound exploration of the terrible logic of violence and vengeance.' * Phil Klay, National Book Award-winning author of <i>Redeployment</i> * `Harrowing subject matter and a fractured structure...make this a challenging read. But this sad, clever tale of unintended consequences and a city torn apart is well worth the effort.' * <i>SFX</i> * 'Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, this complex novel weaves the experiences of a diverse group of Iraqis during the chaos of internecine warfare. This Iraqi perspective is one that may surprise and challenge casual readers; highly recommended.' * <i>Library Journal</i> * 'Expertly told... A significant addition to contemporary Arabic fiction.' * Judges' citation, International Prize for Arabic Fiction * 'A remarkable book from the heart of terror, where violence dissolves the divide between reality and unreality.' * Thomas McGuane, author of <i>The Longest Silence</i> * 'A painful and powerful story.' * Hassan Blasim, author of <i>The Corpse Exhibition</i> * `Uses Kafka-esque scenarios and magic realism to convey just how surreal and nightmarish day-to-day life for Iraqis has become.' * Michiko Kakutani, <i>New York Times</i> * `Matter-of-factly, Saadawi sets out a reality - Baghdad in 2005 - so gothic in its details...that, when the novel makes a turn to the supernatural, it barely shocks.' * The New Yorker * 'A haunting allegory for sectarian violence.' * Alexandra Alter, <i>The New York Times</i> * 'A haunting allegory of man's savagery against man and one of the most essential books to come out of the Iraq War, or any war.' * Elliot Ackerman, National Book Award finalist for <i>Dark at the Crossing<i/> * 'Ahmed Saadawi has divined a dark, rapturous metaphor within the landscape of post-9/11 Iraq and, channeling Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has written a love song to the humanity that endures even amid the ruins of war.' * Lea Carpenter, author of <i>Eleven Days</i> * 'Frankenstein in Baghdad is a quietly ferocious thing, a dark, imaginative dissection of the cyclical absurdity of violence. From the terrible aftermath of one of the most destructive, unnecessary wars in modern history, Ahmed Saadawi has crafted a novel that will be remembered.' * Omar El Akkad, author of <i>American War</i> * 'Weaving as seamlessly from parable to realism as a needle weaves a tapestry, Frankenstein in Baghdad perfectly captures the absurdity, mayhem, and tragedy of war. Mahmoud the hapless journalist, Hadi the unwitting Dr. Frankenstein, and Elishva the mother are all profoundly human and appealing, our guides to a rare glimpse of the human beings on the receiving ends of our wars. Funny, bizarre, and captivating, this is a must-read for all Americans who are curious to see the war at last from an Iraqi point of view.' * Helen Benedict, author of <i>Wolf Season</i> and <i>Sand Queen</i> * 'Horrifically funny and allegorically resonant, Frankenstein in Baghdad captures very well the mood of macabre violence that gripped Baghdad in 2005.' * Brian Van Reet, author of <i>Spoils</i> * 'The war novel after Iraq is alive in America, and an Iraqi perspective here gives a shot of high voltage to a reanimated discussion... Saadawi's sentences are smooth, crisp, and McCarthy-esque; translator Jonathan Wright does an incredible job of bringing the haunting, brooding rhythm of the words to life.' * <i>Rain Taxi</i> *