Tunisia – Desirable Body

Frankenstein’s monster is one of the more iconic science fiction tropes. When originally introduced by Mary Shelley, the monster was used as a cautionary tale against the hubris of man who thought he could replace God. Since then the trope has evolved, and now the mad scientist laboratory, life giving lightning, and the obligatory Igor are required to create an implacable monster who needs to be killed with fire. These comedic embellishments have helped enhance the trope’s reputation by making it kind of unforgettable. At the same time, the increased popularity has also detracted from the more thought-provoking ideas the original monster introduced. Good thing the trope has continued to evolve.

These days the metaphor for Frankenstein’s monster kind of applies to any man-made creation gone wrong. Whether it is an out-of-control artificial intelligence, robots who struggle with the meaning of life, or man-made human constructs. We also see this in the Arab world where two new science fiction novels help bring the cautionary tale of Frankenstein’s back to life in very different ways.

In 2014, Ahmed Saadi wrote the award winning Frankenstein in Baghdad, which tells the story of a revenge seeking creation made from the scattered body parts of bomb victims. The book is known for its masterful combination of horror and compassion, and I wish it were the book I was reviewing tonight. Instead, I am going to explain to you why I was horribly disappointed with Hubert Haddad’s Desirable Body.

Off with His Head

“Soon immortality will no longer hold any secrets for humankind.”

This book tells the story of Cedric Allyn-Weberson. Cedric is the son of Morice Allyn-Weberson, a Big Pharma billionaire. Disgusted with his upbringing, Cedric renounced his heritage (and his name), and became an investigative journalist. His life goal was to expose corruption in pharmaceutical companies, but then Lorna, his girlfriend, broke up with him, right before he suffered a horrible boating accident. His head survived.

Filled with guilt, Lorna contacts Morice, and they make a decision to authorize some very experimental surgery. Cedric’s head is decapitated and attached to a new donor body. The rest of the book then proceeds to explore his recovery process, and how he adjusts to being a head on a body that’s not his, while also touching on the wider social impact. It should have been an interesting read. I wish it was.

Language is an Issue

“But his near-certainty of a fatal outcome made all words superfluous”

This book is written in a high register. The language is that of a book written in the late nineteenth century. However, the book takes place in the modern era, and this created a disconnect which prevented me from properly connecting to the story or engaging with the book on any meaningful level. This doesn’t mean the book wasn’t written well. The language was very poetic, and there is some very nice imagery. It was just completely out of place for the era in which the story takes place.

My other big issue with this book is that I had a really hard time connecting with Cedric, the victim and protagonist of this novel. He has a guilt relationship with Lorna and with his new body and he constantly torments himself over them, and that was pretty much the entire story. I can only tolerate so many attempts to find meaning in a crazed existence, and I was very glad once the story was over, and Cedric stopped trying.

One of the few redeeming graces of the book is the short chapter length. I am a fan of short chapters because it makes it easier for me to put the book down. Useful when you have kids and a crazy busy work day, but in this instance it also meant I could stop reading without falling asleep.

The Omer is eternity in splendor which is weirdly appropriate for this book. Desirable Body touches on the subject of immortality. If you can decapitate a head, and attach it to a new body, you will have achieved functional immortality. The body can be young, desirable, and in any shape or condition the owner of the head wants, which means in theory you also achieve beauty. Except you really don’t. The head is not on it’s original body, and the combination creates a weird artistic grotesqueness. The kinds that both fascinates and repels, and maybe that’s another reason why I didn’t like the book so much. 

I really should have gone with Frankenstein in Baghdad.


About the Author and Translator

Hubert Haddad is a Franco-Tunisian novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, and essayist. He has received literary prizes for a number of his publications, including the 2008 Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie and the 2009 Prix Renaudot Poche for Palestine, a compelling political novel. Published in seven languages, Palestine is currently being adapted into a motion picture. His latest novel to be translated into English, Rochester Knockings, was published in 2015. 

Alyson Waters is a translator of modern and contemporary French and Francophone literary fiction. She has translated works by Vassilis Alexakis, Louis Aragon, Emmanuel Bove, Albert Cossery, Jean Giono, Daniel Pennac, and Tzvetan Todorov, among others. Waters has received several grants and prizes for her translations, including, in 2012, the French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize for Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times.

Desirable Body

Author: Hubert Haddad

Translator: Alysson Waters

Publisher: Yale University Press

Published: 2018

Pages: 232

Format reviewed: Digital