Frankenstein in Baghdad

Frankenstein in Baghdad Book Cover Frankenstein in Baghdad
Ahmed Saadawi
Penguin Books
In Store Now!

Judging a book by its cover is one thing. I worry, though, that it would be easy to assume that this novel could be judged on its title alone. But Frankenstein in Baghdad is very different from what you might expect: it’s moving, sympathetic, funny, and even gentle at times. As it is, I was blown away by this book.

Each of the characters who populate Saadawi’s Baghdad, with their attempts to make a place for themselves in the scarred capital of the war-torn country, is immediately recognizable. From the lost and lonely widow Elishva who punctuates her every sentence with an allusion to the son she lost some twenty years ago, to Mahmoud, the earnest young journalist trying to cope with his new responsibilities, to Hadi the junkdealer, perpetual liar but beloved raconteur, all of them are sympathetic in their struggles and familiar in their desires.

And, while the community we are introduced to in Bataween is peopled by individuals with different religious beliefs, different sources and levels of income, different backgrounds and responsibilities, the violence that is perennially in the background exposes their similarities: each is vulnerable, each is scared, and each has suffered loss.


When a monster is created from disparate body parts of victims of bombings, shootings, etc., its mission of vengeance seems straightforward, unequivocal.


It is the last of these similarities that composes the major theme of this novel. Everyone living in Saadawi’s Iraq has a vendetta, regardless of whether they have plans to act out their revenge. Most are simply seeking a personification for their pain, someone to blame for their loss. So, when a monster is created from disparate body parts of victims of bombings, shootings, etc., its mission of vengeance seems straightforward, unequivocal.

But violence is never either of those things, and it is fascinating how this creature is interpreted by the various characters, and how it only obfuscates the already tenuous situation in the country.

It would be doing this novel a disservice, though, to call it a monster story. It is as much a monster story as Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a story about a crow, or Animal Farm is a story about a horse. Neither is it a horror story, or even a war story.

At its heart this is the story of the characters living in Lane 7 and their struggles to impose normalcy on a deteriorating situation.  It is ripe with interpretations of the continuing struggle faced by Iraq and much of the area. But, it speaks to something larger, something perennial and universal: violence begets violence, vengeance begets nothing but new vendettas. Even if one is endowed with more power than one’s opposition, can there be a way out of the most vicious of cycles of violence?

Rupert McNally
Rupert is a fan of fabulation in the fiction he reads. He mostly reads classics, but also enjoys science-fiction, and a good adventure story. On the non-fiction side he enjoys books on politics, language, and English history.