It won’t come as any surprise to anyone that this novel is about the war in Baghdad, the one which has gone on relentlessly since 2003. Saadawi won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for this work about the people trying to—literally—piece their lives together amidst endless bombings and heavy doses of despair.
The diversity of Iraqi culture is one highlight in this novel, the first people we see in any depth being one of the large numbers of Christians, not Shi’ite, Sunni, Yazidis, Ahl-e Haqq, Mandeans, Shabak, and Bahá’í, or any other of the many religions that were commonly found in Baghdad before the war.
"I’ll tell you something. I don’t think my family were originally Arabs…I think [we] were Sabean who converted to Islam,” said Mahmoud.Mahmoud is a journalist in a struggling newspaper. The owner doesn’t seem to care enough about news and is instead, like the rest of the city, looking for opportunities to make money. The city’s population has a large contingent of people who no longer trust in their god but have revived an interest in the astrology of their forbears.
Mahmoud gets a scoop, a digital audio archive of the man thought to be terrorizing the city’s citizens. The man, called Whatsitsname, had been created by a grieving junk man, Hadi, from the bits of people left after bombings. Whatsitsname was meant to be memorial to all the people who died but who have no bodies to bury. Hadi had meant no disrespect, and certainly never anticipated Whatsisname would come to life in the midst of a terrible electrical storm…
Lightly told, the story’s humor saves it from a reality too terrible to contemplate. Originally composed of body parts from ‘innocents,’ Whatsitsname gradually found himself replacing bits and pieces of those people he’d already avenged, eventually using parts from terrorists themselves, or criminals and crooks. This made his psychic paybacks much more fraught and complicated.
“…who’s to say how criminal someone is? That’s a question the Magician raised one day. ‘Each of us has a measure of criminality…’”More importantly, we begin to question what it means to share destinies with others, some we do not like or do not trust, and even some people we barely know. If the coarse and criminal ‘get the girls,’ what does it mean to be chaste? As for the Frankenstein, Whatsitsname, “they have turned me into a criminal and a monster, equating me with those I seek to exact revenge on.” But he continues to exist, changing features and nature, reflecting those whose parts he attaches.
As an examination of the fragmentation that has taken place in a diverse but harmonious society when death is sown recklessly and nonsensically, this novel is a window. As a novel in the Western tradition, it manages to convey a complex psychological portrait of a city, not merely of individuals. Were it a painting, it would feature a lot of red and black. It is definitely an indication that life has not been extinguished yet, that confusion sowed is being digested, and the city may rise again.