Frankenstein in Baghdad demonstrates how snuffing out criminality is really a way of plunging oneself into a morality morass.
While very few US-American readers seek it out or accidentally stumble upon it, there is an entire subgenre of literary fiction written by victims of modern warfare. These works must be translated; Chechen refugees and Kosovo genocide survivors do not articulate their suffering in English. They are devastating to read as they detail lives and communities that have endured incomprehensible violence. One other element this subgenre typically shares is a whiff of the supernatural, the absurd or the horrible. These are novels populated by ghosts, monsters, sorcery and other such metaphysical experiences. This particular component reveals much about what it must mean to survive a war and then attempt to artistically imbue such an experience with meaning: war is so inhuman, its violence so stark and so random, that it defies purely physical or scientific explanation. There must be, says the war survivor’s epistemological privilege, some other force driving humans to make war, or else being human is itself too monstrous and awful. As with other standouts in this subgenre—Bao Ninh’s sublime The Sorrow of War being an exemplar—Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad must dip into the metaphysical to comprehend the vortex of violence that has wracked Baghdad since March 2003.
The novel loosely traces the crosshatching interactions of about half a dozen residents of the Bataween neighborhood in 2006, a historic district with a heavily Christian population. This community is wracked by multiple layers of violence, both historic and contemporary. There is, of course, the growing internecine Iraqi civil war that is burgeoning in the midst of the persistent and aggressive US military occupation, but there is also the legacy of the ‘80s Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf War of the early ‘90s, the starvation caused by the US-created sanctions regime of the ‘90s and the intermittent bombing carried out by the Clinton administration. The historical references reach further back as well, to the period of the British mandate and the various Communist and Baathist coups of the Cold War period.
Frankenstein in Baghdad personifies the violence. Characters are haunted by lost sons, narrowly survive car bombs, duck in terror when accidentally caught in crossfire between occupation forces and insurgents and get arbitrarily beaten by state security agents. Readers experience the war through multiple individual lenses, each bringing their own perspective. Astonishingly, the book does not keep the violence at the level of big actors like the US military, the Sunni militias and the corrupt new Iraqi government. The violence is not just societal or communal—it is interpersonal. Sure, the book claims, Iraq as a whole (and Baghdad especially) has been invaded and occupied and there are now armed challengers to that occupation. But that is not the central locus of violence in the novel. Instead, the violence exists between neighbors and with a logic far outside the scope of geopolitics; there are decades of grudges to settle.
This vengeance, too, gets personified, in the form of a literal Frankenstein unwittingly created by Hadi, an alcoholic junk dealer. Hadi collects random body parts of bomb victims and sows them into a human form; this human form then comes to life and becomes an indestructible killing machine seeking to avenge the deaths of each of the humans from whom Hadi has borrowed parts. The monster goes on a rampage across Baghdad and, as the metaphorical embodiment of the (il)logic of communal violence and modern warfare, after he accomplishes his mission of avenging his hosts’ deaths, he swaps out his old body parts for new ones; the new parts give him new scores to settle. He becomes an endless spasm of retributive violence. At first, he is righteous, winning justice for war victims against the criminals who killed them. But Frankenstein in Baghdad demonstrates how snuffing out criminality is really a way of plunging oneself into a morality morass—and it is precisely what the US thinks of itself as doing in places like Iraq or Libya or Somalia or Syria or…(there are at least a dozen more countries that could be listed)—and becomes its own kind of criminality. The Frankenstein quickly devolves from a force-for-good weapon-of-the-weak into a true monster murdering his way across Baghdad, but it takes the monster much longer to realize what he has become than it does the reader.
What Saadawi accomplishes with this novel is fundamental: He brings to the fore the experience of those suffering from war, occupation and the hellbent pursuit of scarce resources. Frankenstein in Baghdad, like its predecessors in its niche subgenre of literary fiction from the front lines of massive, incomprehensible violence, should be required reading, particularly for those of us who, by sheer luck of birth, find ourselves sitting in the imperial metropole of the current global Frankenstein using its indestructible force to pillage the world.