New listeners risked missing the pleasures of the story if they insisted on challenging it right from the start. The logical objections were usually left to the end, and no one interfered with the way the story was told or with the subplots Hadi went into.
Originally published in 2013, and winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014, the 2018 English translation by Jonathan Wright of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad must be a strong contender for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.
Set in Baghdad in 2005, “a place of murder and gratuitous violence,” amidst the bloody insurgency in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war and the growing sectarian conflicts, the story opens with one of the many bombings that hit the city in that year. But for one character, Hadi, a low-life dealer in bric-a-brac, the scene presents a bizarre opportunity:
Hadi watched the scene with eagle eyes, looking for something in particular amid this binge of death and devastation. Once he was sure he had seen it, he threw his cigarette to the ground and rushed to grab it before a powerful jet of water could blast it down into the sewer. He wrapped it in his canvas sack, folded the sack under his arm, and left the scene.
We soon discover, at least according to his bar-room stories, that what he finds is an intact human nose from a dismembered victim of a bomb. And this is the last piece he needs to complete Whatsitsname, a reconstructed body he has assembled from the parts of various victims, an obsession that began when a close friend of his was killed in a bomb and the mortuary could only offer him his pick from an assortment of body parts to bury.
A few days later, distracted by Hadi passing by, Hasib a security guard at the Novotel hotel wanders put of his security booth, and is confronted by a rubbish truck driving at high speed towards the hotel gates:
When Hasib saw the rubbish truck, many possible explanations flooded his mind. It was just a rubbish truck. The driver had made a mistake –he had lost control and veered off towards the hotel gate. There had been a traffic accident, and the driver had sped off and was unintentionally heading for the gate. No, it was a suicide bomber. Stop! Stop! One shot, then another. He didn’t mean to kill the driver. He wouldn’t dare kill anyone, but this was his duty. He was well aware of the strict orders about protecting the hotel. There were security companies and important people and maybe Americans in it.
And the soul of Hasib, unable to locate its almost vaporized body, instead animates the body of Whatisname:
Overwhelmed by a heaviness and torpor, he lodged inside the corpse, filling it from head to toe, because probably, he realized then, it didn’t have a soul, while he was a soul without a body.
The resulting Frankenstein like creation starts to take revenge on behalf of the victims who comprise it against those it holds responsible for their deaths, although he is no monster as Mahmoud, a journalist discovers:
This was the second or third time Mahmoud had listened to the Whatsitsname’s recordings. He couldn’t get over the shock of the story or the soft, calm voice in which it had been recounted.
Saadawi cleverly allows the reader to form their own view on whether the resulting Saramagoesque story is, even within the novel’s confines, simply an urban legend, perhaps a cover story for the true activities of Brigadoer Majid’a rather sinister department, or if they are actually true.
There are laws that human beings are unaware of. These laws don’t operate around the clock like the physical laws by which the wind blows, the rain falls, and rocks fall down mountains, or like other laws that human beings can observe, verify, and define because they apply to things that recur. There are laws that operate only under special conditions, and when something happens under these laws, people are surprised and say it’s impossible, that it’s a fairy tale or in the best case a miracle. They don’t say they’re unaware of the law behind it. People are deluded and never admit their ignorance.
Saadawi does this firstly by employing a framing device that presents the book as a report on a renegade department of the Iraqi civil forces reporting to the occupying authorities, a department which took as its task investigating the occult (in their view, Iraq’s strongest defence against the US invasion were its djinn, only for the Americans to deploy stronger supernatural forces of their own), and the story we are reading is claimed to be a novel discovered during their investigations:
With regard to the activities of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, which is partially affiliated to the civil administration of the international coalition forces in Iraq, the special committee of inquiry set up under my chairmanship, with representatives of the Iraqi security and intelligence agencies and observers from US military intelligence, has come to the following conclusions:
It is clear that the department had been operating outside its area of expertise, which should have been limited to such bureaucratic matters as archiving information and preserving files and documents. Under the direct management of Brigadier Majid, it had employed several astrologers and fortune-tellers, on high salaries financed by the Iraqi treasury, not by the US authorities.
Secondly, Hadi himself is established as a well known fabricator of fantastic tales – indeed even he isn’t clear at times if he really created Whatitsname or simply invented the story:
Hadi was a liar, and everyone knew it. He would need witnesses to corroborate a claim of having had fried eggs for breakfast, let alone a story about a naked corpse made up of the body parts of people killed in explosions.
A seed of fear had started to grow deep inside him, and he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Because lies can come true.
One striking thing in the story is how the aftermaths of even major bombs are simply tidied away:
If she had gone straight back to Tayaran Square, she would have found that everything was calm, just as she had left it in the morning. The pavements would be clean and the cars that had caught fire would have been towed away. The dead would have been taken to the forensics department and the injured to the Kindi Hospital. There would be some shattered glass here and there, a pole blackened with smoke, and a hole in the asphalt, though she wouldn’t have been able to make out how big it was because of her blurred vision.
And life goes on. The rich cast of characters are largely precoccupied with doing business and property deals (“the dire strait of the country offered opportunities only to the bold and adventurous”) the ins-and-ours of office politics, finding a partner (for life or if not, at least for the night), enjoying food and drink in venues from local dives to luxury venues; the bombings and ever present threat of a sudden violent end are in one sense simply the (literally) everyday background noise against which they live their lives. It is the very normality with which such horrifying incidents come to be accepted that adds to the horror for the reader.
But that isn’t to say the novel downplays the brutal reality of the bombings. Even for someone who has encountered several such incidents, they still shock:
The smell suddenly hit his nostrils — the smoke, the burning of plastic and seat cushions, the roasting of human flesh. You wouldn’t have smelled anything like it in your life and would never forget it.
And of course the very fear of violence itself creates deaths, notably in the Al-Aaimmah Bridge stampede in August 2005 caused by a false report of a suicide bomber in a massive crowd of pilgrims, which is included, in a fictionalized version, in the novel.
Whatitsname’s campaign gets increasingly sophisticated as he takes on higher profile targets, and he attracts followers who inevitably end up in sectarian conflicts of their own. And as he revenges each victim, the corresponding body part falls off and begins the natural process of decay, leading him to need to seek body parts from new victims to replace to enable his body to stay intact so he can complete his mission:
My list of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would never end.
This spiral of never-ending violence is clearly a metaphor for the situation in Iraq, as is the increasing confusion as to whether the “victims” from whom his parts are taken are actually themselves also villains responsible for the deaths of others:
Every day we’re dying from the same fear of dying. The groups that have given shelter and support to al-Qaeda have done so because they are frightened of another group, and this other group has created and mobilized militias to protect itself from al-Qaeda. It has created a death machine working in the other direction because it’s afraid of the Other. And we’re going to see more and more death because of fear. The government and the occupation forces have to eliminate fear. They must put a stop to it if they really want this cycle of killing to end.
Others such as the Head of the Tracking and Pursuit Department have no loyalty except to power and fear is the currency in which they trade, his mission being to “create an equilibrium of violence” between the different factions.
The man would have no qualms about using brute force to serve those in power, whether Saddam Hussein, the Americans or the new government. Brigadier Majid had served or would serve them all.
But ultimately the book’s message is that violence begats violence and fear begats fear and, as Whatitsname repeats to himself as a mantra:
There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.
I kill in order to keep going.