US soldiers carry an injured colleague to a helicopter near the city of Falluja, Iraq, in this November 10 2004 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/ELIANA APONTE
US soldiers carry an injured colleague to a helicopter near the city of Falluja, Iraq, in this November 10 2004 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/ELIANA APONTE

Mary Shelley’s original 19th century Frankenstein referenced Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Iraqi writer Ahmed Saadawi has set his recent novel in a modern-day hell: Baghdad in 2005. The capital was hopeful two years after Saddam Hussein’s toppling and a new constitution had just been ratified.

However, residents soon realised that Baghdad was already tragically deep into an anarchic descent.

This is Saadawi’s first work to be translated into English. He is the first Iraqi winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, appropriately signalling the tenacity of Baghdad — a city with a rich literary heritage — as it suffers rampant insurgencies and the highest number of terrorist attacks in the world.

The novel opens with a suicide bombing in a residential neighbourhood. Unnervingly, the eccentric but seemingly innocuous junk-furniture dealer Hadi al-Attag is piecing together a corpse from body parts collected at bomb-blast sites. He wants to make a complete cadaver "so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial".

He needs a nose to consummate his creation; he finds one and sews it on.

Hadi is an unintentional Dr Frankenstein: a storm blows into Baghdad, and the ghoulish entity comes alive as The Whatsitsname, "a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace". But the alchemy is faulty. Whatsitsname’s body parts start to fall off, so he must maintain a regular rhythm of revenge killings to source substitutes.

Quickly, inexorably, his raison d’être changes and he begins killing with less certainty about the culpability of his targets, or on more flimsy pretexts such as an insult.

Increasingly he finds it difficult to discern truth or distinguish moral lines. Rather than a mysterious force for natural justice, he becomes a spoke in Baghdad’s wildly accelerating wheel of atrocities.

There are indeed "laws that humans are unaware of", and justice is illusory.

Whatsitsname faces a further dilemma: how, exactly, to take retribution on a suicide bomber? He is challenged to identify the masterminds, a task muddied by the mishmash of alignments and enmities in the destabilised city.

Complications multiply as powerful political and military-intelligence forces are at work: he is being hunted by an eerily enigmatic Tracking and Pursuit Department. Investigative journalists suspect the unit is really an assassination squad mandated to murder across the political spectrum to create an equilibrium of mayhem as a political strategy.

They attribute these malevolent motives and machinations to the government and US occupying coalition.

The slow-burn narrative trajectory twists through an occasionally macabre maze of apparent red herrings. Conspiratorial peripheral characters such as conjurers, astrologers and fortune-tellers add to the mood of subliminal dread and creeping paranoia.

People’s interactions are edgy or disjointed, and friendships appear half-hearted or dysfunctional, mirrored in the neighbourhood’s ramshackle accommodations: hotels lacking facilities, houses without roofs, rooms without walls.

Latent danger lurks, and everything starts to fall further apart: edifices, political alliances, society, moral fabrics.

Saadawi’s prose is mundane, and his style is muted, matter-of-fact. With cinematic grittiness he freezes a moment, then inches forward or backward in a ragged, fragmented timeline — a jerky flow of action that complements the incoherent unpredictability of the brutality and bloodshed.

Then, like a single, shocking sucker-punch, he inserts the effects of an explosion — the searing reality of death, the commingling of hair, flesh and blood between a man and his donkey — with brevity but gruesome, graphic detail.

Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein feared his creation would kill all of humanity; in Frankenstein in Baghdad, evil human forces are themselves making this happen.

Saadawi uses often dreamlike, sometimes bizarre literary techniques to infiltrate terrorism’s vortex of violence and to illustrate how, by diffusing into an ongoing sequence of catastrophes, it inevitably spawns hearts of darkness.

Interviewed by The New Yorker, he confirmed that Whatsitsname is "the fictional representation of the process of everyone killing everyone".

The novel gives western readers an insight into daily life in a community torn asunder by sectarian strife, ethnic cleansing and politically motivated terrorism. Saadawi wants us to understand the awful impact of war on his city and country.

The novel isn’t purely a message wrapped in a story; it is also a complex and engrossing tale that skilfully blends multiple genres — surrealist protest novel, black comedy, existential noir, gothic horror and the theatre of the absurd.

Saadawi tackles an expanse of themes such as the nature of violence and the desire for vengeance; hope pitted against cynicism; religiosity juxtaposed with the mystic; and the consequences of betrayal, whether of political ideals, societal norms or personal morality.

There is a surprising revelation at the end that explains the detached, near-ambivalent narrative tone and why the novel is jarring rather than nerve-jangling, and — although a page-turner — intrigues rather than chills. Like the best dark fantasy, Frankenstein in Baghdad unsettles by using the supernatural to augment an underlying reality.

Above all, the book is an allegory about physical destruction, political chaos and dehumanisation, and a prompt for decency to supersede militarism and extremism.

Disaffection and a lack of national cohesion permeate many Arab countries today, and Saadawi reveals the desperate need to restitch their societies. Like the original Frankenstein novel, Saadawi believes Frankenstein in Baghdad also posits life’s elemental issue: "It’s the idea of asking your maker what your purpose is. Why are we here, what can we do?"