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Frankenstein in Baghdad Summary, Characters and Themes

“Frankenstein in Baghdad” is a novel by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi. It’s a dark, surreal reimagining of the classic Frankenstein myth set against the backdrop of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

In the story, a Baghdad junk dealer named Hadi stitches together body parts of bombing victims to make a whole corpse for proper burial. This patchwork creation, dubbed the “Whatsitsname”, unexpectedly comes to life, fueled by the souls of the dead. The Whatsitsname, seeking vengeance, embarks on a killing spree, mirroring the unending violence and chaos engulfing Baghdad.

Summary

In post-invasion Baghdad, a web of lives intertwine around a monstrous creation born from the city’s relentless violence. Elishva, an elderly Christian woman, clings to the belief that her son Daniel, missing for decades, will return. 

Hadi, a junk dealer haunted by loss, secretly stitches together body parts from bombing victims, hoping to provide them a proper burial. But when a hotel security guard’s vengeful spirit enters Hadi’s patchwork corpse, it comes to life as the terrifying “Whatsitsname”.

The Whatsitsname becomes an embodiment of vengeance. Driven by the souls of the dead, he kills those responsible for the bombings that shattered his composite form. 

He sees himself as a dark savior of Baghdad, attracting a cult-like following seeking solace in his brutal justice.

Fear and confusion spread as news of the strange killings reach Brigadier Majid, a relentless investigator determined to unravel the mystery. Meanwhile, Mahmoud, a young journalist caught in the shadowy world of his powerful editor Saidi, finds himself entangled in the Whatsitsname’s story. Hadi, terrified of his own creation, confides in Mahmoud, whose disbelief gives way to fascination.

Mahmoud interviews the Whatsitsname, gaining a terrifying and fantastical tale. Saidi, however, twists Mahmoud’s story for his own agenda, further blurring the lines between truth and manipulation. 

As Brigadier Majid closes in, pinning the blame on Hadi, Mahmoud finds himself unexpectedly thrust into a position of power within Saidi’s crumbling empire.

The city itself becomes a character in this chaotic saga. Elishva’s unwavering faith is finally rewarded, though not in the way she imagined, as her grandson appears, leading her to leave Baghdad. 

Faraj, a realtor, profits from the ceaseless cycle of destruction and departure. A devastating explosion rocks Bataween, the neighborhood where it all began. The Orouba Hotel, a symbol of both resilience and decay, becomes a husk of its former self.

Amidst the dissolving order, Saidi’s corrupt schemes unravel. Mahmoud, trapped in the fallout, is interrogated and labeled a threat. It’s here that the story finds a mysterious writer captivated by Mahmoud’s recordings. 

Determined to tell the truth, the writer’s investigation attracts unwanted attention, leading to his arrest and the loss of his manuscript.

Mahmoud flees Baghdad, haunted by the events he’s witnessed. Receiving a cryptic message from Saidi – who proclaims his innocence while hinting at a grand destiny for Mahmoud – he forwards the email to the writer, a symbolic act of passing the torch.

Back in a broken Baghdad, Hadi is hailed as the captured villain, “Criminal X.” 

The citizens celebrate, but some doubt his guilt. The Orouba Hotel crumbles, and from its wreckage, a stranger observes – a hint that the cycle of violence and monstrous creations is far from over. The story ends on a haunting note, a chilling reminder that in a city fueled by chaos, anything can rise from the ashes.

frankenstein in baghdad summary

Characters

Hadi al-Attag

Hadi is a tragic figure fueled by loss, guilt, and a desperate need to restore order in a world spiraling into chaos. His initial act of assembling a corpse from the remnants of bombing victims stems from a profound desire to offer dignity in death, to counter the senseless violence that has consumed his city and taken his friend Nahem. 

However, this act unwittingly unleashes the Whatsitsname, a creature whose own relentless quest for vengeance mirrors Hadi’s own grief and unspoken rage. 

Fear and profound regret come to define Hadi, who is ultimately unable to contain the destructive forces he has unleashed.

The Whatsitsname

This nameless creature is the embodiment of Baghdad’s collective trauma. 

Assembled from the fragments of bombing victims, he possesses no true identity, fueled by the lingering spirits of the dead and their overwhelming thirst for justice in a society where justice seems utterly lost. Yet, this distorted form of retribution only breeds more violence. 

The Whatsitsname becomes a dark savior, his twisted actions exposing the blurred lines between vengeance and senseless brutality, highlighting the cyclical nature of violence in a broken society.

Elishva

An elderly widow, Elishva’s unwavering belief in her son Daniel’s return symbolizes a desperate hope amidst relentless despair. 

Her life seems suspended in time, haunted by the past yet clinging to the faint promise of the future. When the Whatsitsname arrives, she sees him not as a monster but as the answer to her ceaseless longing, a tragic delusion born out of bottomless grief. 

Her eventual departure to be reunited with her family offers a flicker of hope within the pervasive darkness of the novel.

Mahmoud

A young, ambitious journalist, Mahmoud initially exudes a sense of naive idealism, seeking to document and expose the unfolding chaos of Baghdad. 

However, as he becomes entangled in the story of the Whatsitsname, his idealism is slowly chipped away by the realities of corruption, power, and manipulation. 

This transformation mirrors Baghdad itself, a city where truth and lies become indistinguishable, and where a thirst for meaningful change is ultimately stifled by oppressive forces.

Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid

Majid represents the blunt force of authority within a society spiraling out of control. His pursuit of the ‘Criminal X’ is driven by a mixture of duty and the fear of forces he doesn’t fully comprehend. 

Majid’s reliance on violence and astrology to find order highlights the absurdity and desperation of trying to control the uncontrollable within Baghdad’s landscape of destruction and lingering spirits.

Themes

The Perpetuation of Violence

“Frankenstein in Baghdad” paints a grim picture of violence as a self-sustaining entity. From the initial U.S. invasion and its aftermath of sectarian violence to the Whatsitsname’s own acts of revenge, the novel illustrates how easily violence begets further violence. 

The creature, born from the remnants of bombing victims, carries the collective rage and desire for vengeance of all those who suffered. His very existence is a product of the chaos engulfing Baghdad, and his acts of violence against those responsible for the deaths of his component parts only add more fuel to the fire. 

This bleak cycle highlights the lasting scars left by war and conflict, where the thirst for justice can easily spiral into brutal retaliation.

The Power and Ambiguity of Stories

Storytelling plays a pivotal role in shaping reality within the novel. Hadi, a notorious storyteller, crafts a dubious tale around the Whatsitsname, fueling public fear and fascination. 

Mahmoud, the journalist, recognizes the power of narrative in his magazine article about the creature, which is then distorted to a sensational degree by his editor Saidi. Stories become weapons, truths are obscured, and public opinion is manipulated at every turn.

This reflects the broader context of a fragmented Iraq where truth is an elusive target. 

The author himself becomes a character within the novel, grappling with the story of the Whatsitsname – its authenticity, its ramifications, and its potential danger. This metafictional element underscores the difficulty of documenting and understanding a society marred by conflict, where multiple competing narratives and layers of distortion exist.

The Breakdown of Social Order

The Baghdad portrayed in the novel is a world where traditional institutions and social structures have crumbled under the weight of war and occupation. Characters like Brigadier Majid, representing a corrupt and self-serving authority, prioritize their own power and survival over public good. The Tracking and Pursuit Department operates with unchecked brutality while dispensing its own brand of misguided justice. 

Meanwhile, ordinary citizens fall into despair and resignation. 

The breakdown of trust in leadership and the lack of faith in traditional systems create a vacuum where monstrous entities like the Whatsitsname can thrive and where the lines between victim and perpetrator become blurred.

The Search for Meaning and Hope in a Broken World

In the face of unrelenting violence and social disintegration, the novel’s characters cling to fragile threads of hope that keep them afloat. 

Elishva’s unwavering belief in her son’s return and her love for the creature she mistakes as Daniel symbolize the enduring power of human connection. 

Hadi, plagued by guilt and regret, seeks a form of redemption. Even Mahmoud, initially cynical, finds glimpses of purpose in seeking the truth.

The Orouba Hotel, a crumbling relic, becomes a sanctuary for Mahmoud and Abu Anmar – a symbol of persistence under impossible circumstances. 

The novel, while painting a grim portrait of despair, ultimately suggests that even amidst great loss and suffering, the human spirit strives to find meaning, purpose, and the will to carry on.

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