Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright
Ahmed Sadaawi takes the story of Frankenstein and transposes it to Baghdad in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. Bombs go off regularly on the streets and people die every day. But not all of them get a decent burial—bits of bodies lie rotting on the streets, unclaimed. Wanting to force the authorities to recognize that the body parts are as deserving of a proper burial as whole corpses, Hadi, a rather disreputable junk dealer, starts collecting and stitching them together to make a whole man. He dubs the corpse Whatsitsname.
But things get out of hand. There is a huge explosion on Tayaran Square—a bomber tries to attack the Sadeer Novotel Hotel but is thwarted by Hasib, a young security guard. The hotel is spared the explosion but Hasib is blown up in the process.
Hasib’s soul, released from his body, drifts towards the river, wanting to touch it. He sees a man in a white vest and shorts drifting with the current. “Go and find what happened to your body”, the man says. “Don’t stay here.” A teenager sitting on his grave gives him the same advice. “You have to find it or some other body, or else things will end badly for you.”
But Hasib’s body isn’t whole anymore. He goes looking for another one, finds Whatitsname and moves in.
Hadi wakes up in the morning to find the corpse missing. Hasib/Whatitsname has gone to the house next door, which belongs to Elishva, a widow. She never got over the fact that her son Daniel never returned from the war, although everyone around her is convinced that he is dead. So when Hasib, in his new body, walks into her house, she is convinced that Daniel has come back.
Initially, Hasib/Whatitsname wreaks vengeance on those who are responsible for killing the people whose body parts he is using. But as the parts decompose, he has to keep replacing them, and some of the dead are not exactly innocent themselves. As rumours about him grow, he gathers a following who move in with him. Meanwhile the head of the Tracking and Pursuit Unit has decided to capture this strange creature haunting the streets of Baghdad.
This is a clever book, full of black humour. You do need a strong stomach at times, but it is well worth it. The story is told partly from the perspective of Whatitsname, who records his account for a journalist. The characters are vivid, especially Elishva, whose closest confidants are her cat and a picture of St. George on her wall.
Sadaawi paints a picture of a city caught up in violence and uncertainty but where people still try to get on with their lives. And where everyone has a right to their story, even if it is a creature that is an amalgamation of various humans. It is funny, poignant and in spite of drawing the central idea from Mary Shelley, is utterly original. It is not surprising that it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.