It’s very strange to read a novel about life in Baghdad that is filtered through Western culture, but perhaps that’s the most effective way for Ahmed Saadawi to communicate the random violence and unjust massacre that has taken over his country. Winner of the International Prize for Arabic literature, and translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, this novel depicts daily life among car bombings and suicide bombers in a clan-ridden city, by creating a monster, called Whatsitsname, composed of body parts from innocent victims who comes to represent the slaughter of a collapsing state. “He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace” (130).

This metaphysical allegory allows Saadwi to critique the madness of nation building in a world of sectarian rivalries. Half-way through the book, the Whatsitsname takes over the narrative, transcribing into a tape recorder everything he believes and why he is doing what he is doing. But even the Whatsitsname becomes embroiled in rival factions by worshipers, some led by the Magician, some by the Sophist, and many competing in support of the young madman, the old madman, or the elder madman There is also the Enemy, “an officer in the counterterrorism unit “ who leaks information so that Whatsitsname can more successfully eliminate corrupt criminals.

As the Whatsitsname climbs over rooftops and through bombed buildings, he is haunted by the thought that “there are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.” So how can he ever be sure of his messianic revenge in a world of ambiguous duplicity?

Among supporting characters I was most taken by Brigadier Majid of the clandestine Tracking and Pursuit Department, who consults soothsayers and astrologers, in order to predict where the next bomb will go off, even though his superiors never act on the information. “We mitigate the effects, but we can’t stop them all,” he complains. “If they want to establish complete security, let them put us in charge of the country” (216).

Such, however, will not be his fate. The junk dealer’s story about Whatsitsname will be sold by the reporter to another journalist who will himself be arrested for using it in a novel that in fact we are reading. Or perhaps Whatsitsname was the junk dealer all along, disfigured and arrested in front page news, while a shadowy composite figure gazed out the balcony of a cratered hotel to watch the populace celebrate. Ambiguities abound in this unraveling.

Dr. Mike

[March 5, 2018]