However St. George died, (and the catalogues of his gruesome tortures are legion), he was reputedly hard to keep down. “The king ordered that the saint be placed in the olive press,” one story goes, “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.”
That’s one of the epigraphs at the beginning of Ahmed Saadawi’s strange novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad. It’s appropriate for a horror story that centers around a character created from the disparate pieces of terrorist victims who litter the streets of war-torn Iraq following the regular car bombs. But the Whatsitsname is no saint on a holy mission. He’s…
Well, what is he exactly?
Perhaps he’s a metaphor for Iraq itself—mutilated and pieced together so many times that it’s a hideous pastiche of a reality. Yes, surely that. Brigadier Majid, the head of the mysterious Tracking and Pursuit Department of the Iraqi government, believed as much. “It was the Americans who were behind this monster,” he thought. (268)
No one seems to understand American motives. As another Iraqi character observes, “they operated with considerable independence and no one could hold them to account for what they did. As suddenly as the wind could shift, they could throw you down a dark hole.” (69) Why wouldn’t they create a monster who preys on people in the streets?
Except that the Whatitsname wasn’t indiscriminate in his attacks—at least not initially. He sought retribution for those responsible for the deaths of the component parts of his body. “He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace.” (130) But when individual parts were avenged, necrosis would set in, and in order to persist, the Whatitsname had to change his moral calculus to acquire new parts. “There are no innocents who are completely innocent,” he began to tell himself, “or criminals who are completely criminal.” (214) And thus he justified his continuing killing spree.
If it seems like a squalid and empty philosophy, it’s as good as they come by in Baghdad. You can see it in any of the many interesting characters who occupy this book. Haid, the junk dealer who crafted the Whatitsname because he didn’t have a corpse to bury when his partner Nahem was blown up. Faraj, the covetous realtor, who finds a way to profit on any misfortune. Ali Baher al-Saidi, the corrupt owner of the al-Haqiqa magazine. Nawal, the glamorous film director who might be having an affair with Saidi. Mahmoud, the journalist who falls for her.
Really everyone has their own way to make it in the moral abyss that followed the American invasion of 2003. The purist of the lot may be Elishva, the Assyrian Christian woman who talks to St. George via a painting and who believes that the Whatsitsname is her son, Daniel, returned to her at last despite the reports that he was killed in the Iran-Iraq War of the 80s. At least, her neighbor, Umm Salim, believed “God’s hand was on her shoulder wherever she was.” (9)
Perhaps the best that could be said for St. George and the Whatitsname and all the residents of the Bataween neighborhood of Baghdad is that they persist. In the face of violence that threatens to shred them into non-existence, they carry on, inhabiting the ruins until some new story can emerge.
Frankenstein in Baghdad won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014. The translation by Jonathan Wright is good. It’s a disturbing read, but if you’re looking for a monster who makes you think this Halloween, the Whatitsname might be your guy.