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Cruelties manifested

Dwight Garner Feb 3 2018, 23:57 IST

There are a lot of explosions in Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi's intense and surreal novel. People are knocked down, blown backward, tossed into the air. Sometimes a foot or an arm is left in the street. Sometimes all that's left is pink mist.

Saadawi is an Iraqi writer, and this novel, his first to be translated into English, is set in US-occupied Baghdad. Sectarian violence has metastasised. Car bombs go off with almost metronomic regularity, each crunching blast a fresh bulletin from hell. Through this madness toddles Hadi, a junk peddler, as if he were Charlie Chaplin's tramp. He's a simple fellow who likes to drink ouzo and, when he can afford it, sleep with the local prostitutes.

Hadi is used to picking up stray objects. One day he starts to bring home body parts, left in the streets from the day's explosions. He feels they deserve a proper burial. He begins to stitch these bits together, in the hope that if he can create a whole corpse, someone will bury it. You can see where this is heading. Hadi returns home one evening and his oozing creature has fled, without bothering to leave a note. What follows, in this assured and hallucinatory story, is funny and horrifying in a near-perfect admixture. Funny because Saadawi wrings a good deal of black humour out of the way the monster's pieces fall off at inopportune moments.

He delves into its "serious putrefaction problems." The creature is blamed for a series of murders. All the authorities know is that he's terrible to look at, so they begin rounding up all the ugly people in Baghdad as suspects.

Saadawi's tone can be sly, but his intentions are deadly serious. He's written a complex allegory for the tribal cruelties in Iraq in the wake of the US invasion. His book is especially moving about women who have lost their sons and husbands, and who wonder if they are alive and will ever return. In Iraq, the dead sometimes really do return, from dungeons among other places. Frankenstein in Baghdad is about many things other than a creature who terrorises the city at night. It's a real estate novel in which there are struggles over old houses and hotels. It's a journalism novel; one central character is an editor who chases the creature's story. We meet barbers and hotel guards and astrologers and film directors. A lot of kebabs and tripe and boiled beans are consumed, washed down with glasses of arrack. Shishas are smoked; lusty thoughts are entertained. Saadawi wedges a lot of humanity into his narrative.

Like the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Saadawi's creature feels he is misunderstood. He's not a bad guy, he wishes to explain. He's not killing at random. Instead, he's after revenge. He is killing the men whose bombs created his parts. The creature becomes a media obsession. It grants interviews. It thinks things like, "Because I'm made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds - ethnicities, tribes, races and social classes - I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I'm the first true Iraqi citizen."

If the creature is after revenge, you begin to wonder, why does he not commandeer a jet and lumber after George W Bush and Tony Blair? If this monster thinks globally, however, he is committed to murdering locally.

Some think the monster is merely a manifestation of people's fears. He assures them he is more than that. In any case, as Toni Morrison put in Song of Solomon, "What difference does it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?"

The creature experiences its own sort of mission creep. He starts by killing only bad men. Before long he realises that he needs replacement parts. He begins killing nearly at random in order to acquire them. "Who among us is not part evil?" he rationalises. In this translation from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, Saadawi blends the unearthly, the horrific and the mundane to terrific effect. It is no surprise to learn that he won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a kind of Booker Prize for the region, for Frankenstein in Baghdad. There's a freshness to both his voice and vision; he is working through a country's trauma from a series of unusual angles.

There are moments you feel you are reading a war story. At other moments, the book unloads a freight of black magic. We meet a journalist who is compiling an anthology of "the 100 strangest Iraqi stories."

We learn of the activities of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, which monitors unusual crimes, investigates urban legends and makes predictions about future attacks. Ghosts hover over bridges. Four beggars are found dead in a 'weird tableau', each with his hands around the neck of the one in front of him. A woman's phone number is 666, only the first sign she might have boundary issues.

You get the sense, throughout Frankenstein in Baghdad, that Saadawi's creature, alive with malevolent intelligence, is feeding off its own destructive energy.

The reader feeds off it as well. What happened in Iraq was a spiritual disaster, and this brave and ingenious novel takes that idea and uncorks all its possible meanings.

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