Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein in 1818, which tells of the young scientist Victor Frankenstein who experiments with nature and biology to reanimate a human. Frankenstein’s monster is a combination of body parts. He is hideous in form, yet cannot escape the universal human desire to love and to be loved. Frankenstein’s monster is eventually rejected by the scientist and society and goes a rampage until he is killed. Many literary theorists have argued that Shelley wrote the novel as a cautionary tale: at the height of scientific experimentation in the 1800s, Shelley warned of what could happen if one went too far.
Fast forward to 2013 and the publication of Ahmed Saadawi’s novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad, which like Shelley’s novel, is also a cautionary tale, but of a different kind. The “Whatsitsname” (Frankenstein’s monster) in Saadawi’s novel is created by Hadi the junk dealer. Hadi is known in Baghdad as a story teller/liar, thief/seller, and an unethical entrepreneur. When he initially created his monster, he did it out of the desire of making something whole again. He saw many body parts scattered about the city and decided to construct a ‘whole’ body. He is unsure, however, what to do with it and just as he decides to pull apart his creation and scatter the body parts again, fate intervenes. The spirit of a security guard who is killed by a suicide bomber finds Hadi’s creation and makes the mismatched body its home.
Unlike the scientist Frankenstein in Shelley’s novel, it is not really Hadi the junk dealer who gives the Whatsitsname a life or purpose. It is only after the Whatsitsname meets the widow Elishva that things become clear. In a strange blind grief, Elishva thinks that Daniel, her lost son taken from her by war, has returned to her when the Whatsitsname shows up at her house. Learning the story of Daniel, the Whatsitsname takes revenge on the hairdresser who forced Daniel to leave for war. The Whatsitsname begins to listen to the other body parts that have been used to construct him and each one has a story. The Whatistname becomes a Middle Eastern Erinye (or Fury) seeking vengeance for those wronged. Once revenge is complete, usually resulting in death, the body part that has been avenged falls off the Whatsitsname. So in order to keep living, the Whatsitsname requires new body parts. In the beginning the idea of the revenge is pure. The people who make up his body are innocent bystanders blown up by car bombs and the like. Then, as he acquires new body parts his motives change. He is slowly made up of murders, thieves, extremists, and much more. His once pure force, revenge for the innocent, is now tainted and the questions of binary notions of good and evil begin to unfold throughout the text.
The idea of purity of body, mind, soul, and actions is not just questioned in Saadawi’s novel, but also strongly challenged. The idea of there being one correct side to follow is slowly corrupted as the Whatsitsname turns from avenging the innocent to killing innocent people for body parts. The search for binaries in our society is to our detriment a strong and sometimes overwhelming desire. Yet, the reality is that binaries are rarely true. Just look at the notions of gender and ethnicity to name just a few. It is our refusal to acknowledge more than just two sides and the refusal to accept that it is not about picking sides but about being a multitude of ‘sides’ that is at the core of Saadawi’s novel. In that sense, it goes beyond Shelley’s ideas of purity and leaving nature to the natural order of things, and looks at how humanity views, values, and organises itself based on false binaries: good/evil, black/white, Muslim/Christian, East/West, wrong/right, liberal/democrat, etc. ad nauseam. In the end, Saadawi’s monster the Whatsitsname, orchestrates its own demise because it is blinded by binary.
This modern re-telling of a classic Western novel adapted to modern war-torn Baghdad is not the just a testament to the power of Shelley’s original ideas behind her novel, but also to Saadawi’s ability to bring out the story and all of its hidden questions even further.
Have you read Frankenstein in Baghdad? What do you think of contemporary reinventions of classic texts? As always, share the reading love.