I bought this book during my trip to Dubai in July 2019. While there I decided I should work on my reading of Middle Eastern writers since it was practically not existent. The book was shortlisted for The Man Booker International prize in 2018 and won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, so it felt like a safe bet.
The bulk of the action takes place in the Bataween neighborhood of Baghdad. With its small streets and close-knit community, where everyone knows each other even if they don’t like each other. We meet a host of distinctive characters. Elishva is an old Assyrian Christian widow waiting for her missing son to come back home. Hadi a local junk dealer, after his friend’s death, obsessed with collecting body parts of the victims of war. Faraj the estate agent, always on the lookout for more properties to buy to make an easy profit. Mahmoud al-Sawadi a young and ambitious journalist. Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid the head of the mysterious Tracking and Pursuit Department.
We gradually find out what motivates each of them and how the subsequent events impact them. What happens is as follows: Hadi collects the body parts of people killed in the conflict and left unburied. He wants to form a whole corpse and abandon it on the streets to make the government take action and assure respectful burials for the victims. As his monster is ready a terrorist attack takes place at a nearby hotel, killing a guard. His soul floats, unwilling to leave the world and comes across the body constructed by Hadi. This is how Watsitsname is born.
Initially peaceful gradually Whatsits name meets Elishva and talks with Hadi and embarks on a journey of revenge. He wants to kill people responsible for killing Hadi’s friend, possibly killing Elishva’s son (though she firmly believes Whatsitsname is her son returned to her). But as with all such noble endeavors things don’t go as planned. As Whatsitsname gathers a following around himself he starts to disintegrate and will need new body parts all the time. On one hand, avenging the victims on the other he cannot live without them, from there it’s just one small step to Whatsitsname to start killing anyone just to get the body parts.
Panic rises in the city, with Mahmoud’s texts, doing nothing to stop it. At some point in his conversation with Hadi he convinces him to take the tape recorder and give it to Whatsitsname to tell its story. The tale is riveting, but it won’t get published in its full form, it would not sell well. As the times require it gets cut and misrepresented, Whatsitsname feeling as if he is losing the last vestiges of himself.
With the hunt underway by the Tracking and Pursuit Department, involving clairvoyants and wizards things get weirdly out of control. All characters lose any hopes they may have had, they descend into the dark abyss. The story is a cautionary tale, just as Frankenstein could be read. Only here what is being questioned is not science’s hubris, it is the tainting power of war. No one stays clean, no hopes are spared. And we all will be held to account.
At times the book is unbelievably funny with all the absurds of life in a city besieged by war. Other times it is really heartbreakingly sad showing the vicious circle from which there is no escape. Smart entertainment is a rarity and it should be appreciated, this is definitely an example of this rare phenomenon.