The Monsters We Create: Shifted Responsibility and Means of Creation in Frankenstein in Baghdad
Sabrina E. Lopez
Stories of the monstrous and the supernatural have long fascinated readers. Beasts and ghouls have served as the subjects of cautionary tales for children, while monstrous stories for adults often explore the ethical and moral implications of beastly existence. In 1818, Mary Shelley published a story about monstrosity that would go on to become a pervasive, international myth. The persistence of this myth is due, in part, to Shelley’s treatment of themes such as creative responsibility, nurturing domesticity, and the definition of humanity. Ahmed Saadawi, in his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, takes up these themes in a sharp political and social critique of a very different time and place. First published in 2014 and translated into English in 2018, Saadawi’s novel features the Whatsitsname, a creature of war-torn Baghdad, whose monstrosity transcends the limitations of his appearance, or even the mistakes of his creator. Instead, the Whatsitsname represents society itself. In this essay, I will compare Shelley’s original creature with Saadawi’s communally-constructed vigilante in order to show how Saadawi broadens the Frankenstein myth. Moving from the limited realm of the individual to the broader sphere of the community, Frankenstein in Baghdad exposes the literal monsters that exist within the fabric of the human society and a united life experience.
This shift toward communal construction, culpability, and mutual suffering is first detected in the creative processes that are depicted in each novel. Both creatures are constructed in isolation, with Victor Frankenstein laboring in his living quarters at the University of Ingolstadt and Hadi the junk dealer sewing in the privacy of his shed. Both the Whatsitsname and Frankenstein’s creature are constructed and reanimated in private, and though both creatures are “born” under the cover of night and consist of disparate body parts, there are also key differences with regard to their construction, reanimation, and development. For example, Victor Frankenstein builds a “frame” for the “reception” of life and often refers to the body parts he gathers as “materials” (Shelley 35). He describes the creature as a “lifeless thing,” and only moves from calling the creature “it” to “he” after reanimation (Shelley 38). Hurried by his own eagerness, Victor chooses large body parts, which form a “being of gigantic stature” (Shelley 35). This prioritizing of time and speed over detail and proportion denotes Victor’s disrespect for the creature. As a result, when the creature does come alive Victor views him as a savage, less-than-human Other.
In contrast, the language of creation in Saadawi’s novel is quite different. Hadi, speaking in public, explains that the Whatsitsname was built with the body parts of bombing victims found abandoned in the street. Hadi’s description of this ghastly work lacks the scientific language of material acquisition. Addressing his listeners’ questions about the “corpse” he has sewn together, Hadi explains, “It’s a human being, guys, a person…I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as trash, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial” (Saadawi 27). Retelling his story later at the local coffee shop, Hadi urges others to use the moniker “Whatsitsname” when referring to the missing corpse. Unlike Hadi’s Whatsitsname, Frankenstein’s creature does not have the luxury of a proper name, a deficiency that contributes to his othering. In contrast, Hadi seeks to respect the humanity of his creature, thus providing a model to his listeners and to us as readers.
Hadi’s purpose for creation replaces Victor’s creative intention to provide life to dead matter with the need for proper burial and respect of human life. While Victor Frankenstein works to achieve a personal scientific goal, Hadi builds the body of the Whatsitsname with a goal beyond the self. In an environment stricken with death and multiple layers of sorrow, Hadi embodies a selflessness in his creation that responds to his personal and communal suffering. As such, the body of the Whatsitsname represents the sheer magnitude of the mutual suffering and diminishing value of human life in occupied Baghdad. This body elicits empathy from readers even before the Whatsitsname is reanimated; in its very composition, the body asks us to consider concepts of justice, value, injustice, grief, war, suffering, humanity and death. While it can be argued that both Victor and Hadi create as a means of coping with loss, the difference between their griefs is clear. While Victor fights against death itself, Hadi works against unjust violence and the desecration of the bodies of his fellow citizens. In this way, Saadawi moves his readers outward, beyond the blinders of the self, and towards the concepts of mutual suffering and the cruelty people inflict upon one another.
This movement can also be detected in the character Elishva, whom the Whatsitsname recognizes as a mother. This marks another difference between Frankenstein in Baghdad and the original novel: whereas Victor is a singular creator, the Whatsitsname is provided a set of parents and an opportunity to develop a concreate identity through his perceived familial relations. While the DeLacey family functions as a means for Shelley’s creature to acquire language and an understanding of domestic tranquility, his engagement with the family is limited to voyeurism. The Whatsitsname, in contrast, encounters Elishva directly, and she mistakes him for her long-lost son Daniel. This initial acceptance and socialization places the Whatsitsname on a path very different from his Romantic counterpart. While he recognizes himself to be “ugly,” and seems surprised that “the old woman didn’t seem startled by his dreadful appearance,” Elshiva’s warm welcome provides an opposing sense of comfort (Saadawi 55). Whereas Shelley’s creature recoils in horror with the “reality [of] the monster that I am” and becomes filled with emotions of “despondence and mortification,” the Whatsitsname overcomes the shock of his appearance fairly quickly, without an immediate sense of self-hatred, which demonstrates the power of human interaction (Shelley 90). In a world of war, Saadawi reminds his readers of the real positive impact of acceptance, and the ways in which acts of acceptance can be replicated.
Elisha’s presence as a maternal figure also highlights the influence individuals have on one another in the construction of social ideals, morals, and the social contract. She immediately imposes upon the Whatsitsname the identity of her son, Daniel, and she immediately goes about reminding him of “his” supposed past. Photographs, clothing and the unpacking of “the boxes inside her that had long remained closed,” together with long monologues laced with religious language, provides the Whatsitsname with a sense of morality, purpose and identity (Saadawi 61-62). Here we see Saadawi injecting a maternal figure into the Frankenstein myth, thereby underscoring the interconnectivity between the realm of the self and the realm of society.
This understanding of interconnectivity and its relational concepts plays a vital role in the novel’s understanding of responsibility, blame, and justice. While Shelley alludes to interconnectivity through her choice of victims, who are all related in some way to Victor, Saadawi depicts this aspect of the Frankenstein myth on a much larger scale. For instance, Saadawi’s use of the third person omniscient point of view for the first seventeen chapters provides multiple, simultaneous perspectives on singular events. Each new chapter brings a new, individual perspective on bomb explosions in Tayaran Square and the Sadeer Novotel overlooking Andalus Square. Readers see multiple individual reactions to the same horrific event as it unfolds, reminding us of the number of individuals who experience these horrors as a societal whole. This formal choice illustrates an interconnectivity forged through collective experience. Whereas the limitations of an individual might blind us to the existence of mutual suffering, Saadawi’s readers can see the echoing effect of one deadly event across multiple persons. As Zahar Hankir notes, “Saadawi’s goal isn’t to resolve the horror of war, but rather to thrust the reader into its midst so that they may question its senselessness” (2).
The novel’s form is echoed in the composition of the Whatsitsname, whose body is composed of innocent victims whose murders cry for vengeance, peace, and justice. The Whatsitsname, a creature who is endowed with respect, humanity and value, struggles with the shared energy and desires he receives from the parts that compose the collage of his body, as well as the soul that rests within him. One of his assistants, the “young madman,” believes the Whatsitsname to be the “first true Iraqi citizen” by virtue of the fact that his “body parts [derive from] people from diverse background-ethnicities, tribes, races, and social classes” (Saadawi 146). Building on the moral sense established during his initial meetings with Elishva, the Whatsitsname defines his existence as “the answer to their call for an end to injustice and for revenge on the guilty” (Saadawi 143). While Shelley’s creature is blinded by his own intense suffering and seeks revenge on his creator, the Whatsitsname’s monstrosity stems from his vigilantism and distorted sense of justice. Ultimately, the Whatsitsname believes he exists to serve the suffering people, the “innocent who have no protection” (Saadawi 143). This mission and his unique struggle with shared bodily desire sets him apart from Shelley’s creature, who is only motivated by his own desires and needs—that is, his experience of the self.
In this way, Saadawi harnesses the power of Frankenstein to question the extent to which we are beholden to responsibilities outside the self. This responsibility is evident in the Whatsitsname’s preoccupation with the definitions of innocence and guilt, as well as his need to replace his own lost body parts in order to survive. For the various consciousnesses associated with his different body parts demand that the Whatsitsname enact vengeance for their past murders. After the Whatsitsname avenges the murder of an individual associated with one of his body parts, that part (now satisfied) falls from his body. This process of continuous molting and chronic decay creates a need for constant regeneration. In other words, if replacement body parts are not available, the Whatsitsname must not only avenge previous murders, but commit new murders in order to survive. Quoting an interview with Saadawi, Hankir argues that this unique situation is a metaphor for the war in Iraq:
Saadawi’s not so subtle intention here is to emphasize what he refers to as the “complicity” of all those involved in the conflict. In his mind, everybody has blood on their hands: American soldiers; foreign mercenaries; Al-Qaeda fighters; warlords; journalists; and corrupt Iraqi officers. “People tend to view themselves as saints seeking justice, and others as terrorist,” [Saadawi] says. “In truth, no one’s innocent.” (Hankir 3)
This movement away from individual to collective responsibility is confirmed through the Whatsitsname’s need for regeneration. The task of locating replacement parts from the innocent and the inevitable use of criminal body parts to maintain his physical form causes the Whatsitsname, as well as the reader, to question categories of criminality, guilt, and innocence. For example, if the Whatsitsname kills a criminal in order to replace a body part, does that then render the Whatsitsname a criminal? The lack of a clear definitive answer in response to questions like this prevent the novel from ascribing blame onto a singular person or even a particular set of persons. Instead, it places the responsibility for judgement upon the community, and upon the atmosphere of normalized violence and death in Baghdad and in the wider world.
This idea of communal complicity and responsibility is embodied in the character of the Whatsitsname. His ideology, physical composition and resulting actions reach their final expression through his convergence with Hadi, his creator. As Victor Frankenstein symbolically merges with his creation through their cat-and-mouse journey at the end of Shelley’s novel, Hadi merges with his creation through what Harriet Hustis identifies as the Promethean “willing assumption of a creator’s responsibility for his helpless progeny” (848). Hadi’s exposure to a fire, which leads to a facial disfigurement, initiates his merging with the Whatsitsname and, eventually, his development of a Promethean “pity that Frankenstein’s monster [could not] obtain” (Hustis 848). Hadi’s pity, which manifests in his confession to the Whatsitsname’s crimes in a court of law, completes the novel’s shifting of responsibility from the individual to society by dramatizing the reallocation of blame.
While one need not have read the original Frankenstein in order to appreciate Saadawi’s novel, a comparative analysis does allow for an appreciation of Saadawi’s use of the Frankenstein myth to increase a social awareness among a modern readership, particularly one functioning in a modern society still rife with suffering, war, and poverty. In a culture so focused on the individual, it can be easy to forget that mutual and communal suffering exists. Frankenstein in Baghdad increases our awareness of this suffering, and calls attention to the modern disconnect between self and whole that can perpetuate unending conflict. The novel’s emphasis on interconnectivity and depiction of Promethean pity stands as a stark reminder of our common humanity. The need of novels such as Frankenstein in Baghdad is unfortunate and unsettling. However, its use of Frankenstein to identify injustice and to promote change both highlights the importance of literature and hints at the continued longevity of Mary Shelley’s two-hundred-year-old ghost story.
Hankir, Zahra. “Ahmed Saadawi Wants To Tell A New Story About the War in Iraq.” Lithub.com, 19 June 2018, lithub.com/ahmed-saadawi-wants-to-tell-a-new-story-about-the-war-in-iraq/.
Hustis, Harriet. “Responsible Creativity and the ‘Modernity’ of Mary Shelley’s Prometheus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 43, no. 4, 2003, pp. 845–858, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4625101.
Saadawi, Ahmed. Frankenstein in Baghdad: A Novel. Translated by Jonathan Wright, Penguin, 2018.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Oxford UP, 2008.