mini-review · Read Harder · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (transl. Jonathan Wright)

30780005Summary from Goodreads:
From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by “Baghdad’s new literary star” (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

Here is the problem with flap copy and blurbs: this description is only half the story. The novel opens with the description of a division of the Tracking Unit tasked with identifying and tracking threats to the new government and American occupying forces. However, this division has also secretly been using fortune-tellers, astrologers, fakirs, and all sorts of metaphysical methods to attempt to predict where a bombing might occur. They’ve uncovered a criminal who cannot be killed and a journalist who interviewed him and a writer who was provided with confidential materials from the department and wrote a novel about it.  Which has been confiscated.

What we proceed to read then, is that novel. It begins with the elderly widow Elishva, a woman of deep religious convictions, on her way to worship at the Assyrian Christian church and pray to St. George for the return of her lost son, Daniel, who was conscripted by the Baathists over twenty years ago. While she is gone, a bombing takes places near her home in Bataween, an old Iraqi Jewish neighborhood. Once the blast has cleared we meet Hadi, the junk dealer, who is grieving his former business partner lost in a similar incident. The journalist Mahmoud is sent to write about the bombing. And then another bombing happens, this time an attempt on a hotel, and a guard is killed, his body vaporized. Without a body, his soul cannot find rest. It finds a home in the patchwork corpse the traumatized Hadi has assembled from disparate body parts. Claimed by Elishva as her lost son, the creature embarks on a course of vengeance across the city.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is an outstanding metafictional work set in post-invasion Baghdad. Saadawi draws from not only Mary Shelley’s creator and monster but also the idea of the golem to explore ideas of retribution, causation, and responsibility. A wonderful cast of characters populates the Bataween neighborhood at the center of the story. It brought depth and detail to a place in the world so often presented in Western media as a monoculture. The plot is structured in such a way that I really couldn’t predict how it would wrap up. I have to compliment the translator Jonathan Wright for bringing this novel across into English – the language flows beautifully.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · stuff I read

As Lie Is To Grin by Simeon Marsalis

34146663Summary from Goodreads:
David, the narrator of Simeon Marsalis’s singular first novel, is a freshman at the University of Vermont who is struggling to define himself against the white backdrop of his school. He is also mourning the loss of his New York girlfriend, Melody, whose grandfather’s alma mater he has chosen to attend. When David met Melody, he told her he lived with his drug-addicted single mother in Harlem, a more intriguing story than his own. This lie haunts and almost unhinges him as he attempts to find his true voice and identity.

On campus in Vermont, David imagines encounters with a student from the past who might represent either Melody’s grandfather or Jean Toomer, the author of the acclaimed Harlem Renaissance novel, Cane (1923). He becomes obsessed with the varieties of American architecture -upon land that was stolen, – and with the university’s past and attitudes as recorded in its newspaper, The Cynic. And he is frustrated with the way the Internet and libraries are curated, making it difficult to find the information he needs to make connections between the university’s history, African-American history, and his own life.

In New York, the previous year, Melody confides a shocking secret about her grandfather’s student days at the University of Vermont. When she and her father collude with the intent to meet David’s mother in Harlem–craving what they consider an authentic experience of the black world–their plan ends explosively.

The title of this impressive and emotionally powerful novel is inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem -We Wear the Mask- (1896): -We wear the mask that grins and lies. . . .

As Lie is to Grin is a strange short novel, not quite plotless but the plot is almost secondary to the narrator’s exploration of race, cultural appropriation, passing, and the performance (or not) of “blackness”. There are many trans-fictional elements involving the architecture of the University of Vermont and of Harlem (this is a very “New York” novel, if you know your way around the metropolitan area). If you haven’t read Jean Toomer’s Cane, that is a major touch point for the narrator and you should read it anyways bc it’s good.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.