Frankenstein in Baghdad

A devastating new take on the archetypal tale


Frankenstein has spawned more plays, films, cartoons and parodies (Young Frankenstein has just morphed into a stage version) than any other novel in English fiction. Dracula - with which an early version of Frankenstein once shared a double bill at the London Lyceum - may be the sole exception..

  Frankenstein in Baghdad, long-listed for the Man International Booker prize in 2018 - the two hundredth year since Mary Shelley's masterpiece was first published - marks a striking change of direction in the afterlife of one of literature's most influential books.

  Ahmed Saadawi, an Iraqi novelist who still lives inBaghdad, has set his new working of the archetypal story within a city ripped apart by violence. The year is 2005 andBaghdad, while theoretically under American control, remains at the mercy of warring factions. Bombing creates a daily sense of impermanence; of the fragility of life  Frequent explosions - usually caused by a suicide bomber - are followed by the collapse of buildings; the scattering of unidentified human body parts; the departure of dazed survivors, and the unsteady resumption of a life that offers an increasingly fragmented mirror to reality.

  Staying alive in this arbitrary world as best he can, Hadi, a junk dealer and scavenger, tracks down the body parts of victims. He stitches them together into the semblance of a body; as with Frankenstein's Creature, the assembled corpse is notable for its lack of any physically attractive feature. It is hideous enough to strike terror into the heart of those who behold it.

  Hadi does not mind that his home-stitched body is a mess. His intention is to display his Creature as a reproach. Its grotesque body will - he hopes - shame a corrupt and chaotic government into providing proper burials for its murdered citizens.

  Hadi's strategy falls to pieces when a dead man's soul takes up residence in the still vacant corpse. Animated and seemingly conscious of its Creator's intentions, the patchwork corpse becomes the Whatsitsname, a monster who stalks the streets ofBaghdad, hunting down the killers of the victims from whom It has been created.

  Suddenly, a new thought enters the Creature's mind, a radical idea which causes confusion about its chosen function.

  'There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.' This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue...This was the realization that would undermine his mission - because every criminal he killed was also a victim.

  Armed with this profoundly misanthropic perception, the Creature  justifies the expansion of his mission into a search for any body parts - including those of people who are still alive - that can enable him to survive. Whatitsname now assumes the formless face of the terror that grips a city under siege.

  A highly original novel in its own right, Frankenstein in Baghdad also offers a new way of looking at the Frankenstein story. That this is deliberate is apparent from the opening page, Here, Saadawi references the articulate outcast of Shelley's fiction by quoting the Creature's appeal to Victor Frankenstein during their critical encounter by the glacier. ('Yet I ask you not to spare me; listen to me; and then, if you can, and if you will destroy the work of your hands.') Later, within his own text, Saadawi causes his own Creature to echo this plea for understanding. 'You who are listening to these recordings now, if you don't have the courage to help me with my noble mission, then at least try not to stand in my way.'

   Parenting forms a crucial strand in Mary Shelley's fiction. Victor Frankenstein's greatest crime is not his attempt to manufacture life, but his impetuous abnegation of paternal responsibility towards the Creature who owes its birth to him. Here, Saadawi makes a radical departure from the nineteenth century novelist's moral sermon. His own book opens by introducing readers to an elderly Assyrian Christian widow and neighbour to Hadi. Elishva holds daily conversations with the icon of St George within her much-coveted old style family home. (The thirst for acquisition plays a prominent role in Saadawi's book.)

  It is the icon who sustains Elishva's belief that Daniel, her lost son, will one day return; when the Whatsitsname suddenly appears at her door, Elishva believes that Saint George has fulfilled his promise. She welcomes the stranger in with the unhesitating solicitude of a parent - which is precisely what Victor Frankenstein fails to do for his home-manufactured child - and is rewarded by being spared from its predations. In a rare concession to sentiment, Saadawi eventually permits Elishva's actual grandson to show up and lead her to safety.

  The old woman's icon plays an important role within the novel. From the start, Saadawi takes care to connect the Frankenstein story of an animated corpse to the sanctification of George, a Christianised Roman soldier who - in the Muslim version of his life - survived a series of torments by Diocletian, culminating in his brutal dissection, limb from limb, before his restoration to life.

The king ordered that the saint be placed in the olive press until his flesh was torn to pieces and he died. They then threw him out of the city, but the Lord Jesus gathered the pieces together and brought him back to life, and he went back into the city.

                       - The Story of St George, the Martyr

George's significance inBaghdadis apparent from the energy with which members of Isil dedicated themselves to destroying or desecrating his image. TheChurchofSt Georgeremains the only Anglican place of worship in the city, presided over by an English vicar until 2014, when the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered Canon Andrew White home for security reasons. But George's importance is recognised all across what was once the Byzantine Empire.* An abundance of statues, icons and small scale models of the warring saint survive in Prague, as well as in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and across the Middle East. For Christians under siege, as Saadawi makes apparent through his portrait of the faithful Elishva, only the warrior saint can protect them from the miseries imposed by forces beyond their control or understanding. When Elishva is finally persuaded to leaveBaghdad, she removes her protector from his ancient frame and carries away the defaced and smiling countenance of her guardian and friend. As Saadavi's Arab readers will have instantly appreciated, the icon's survival symbolises the power of the myth to endure. Like Shelley's Creature in the last dramatic pages of her novel, the Saint may be swept from view, but its power is undiminished.

   Added: Friday 23 March 2018

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