by Iraj Pezeshkzad
My Uncle Napoleon is a famous, cherished Iranian novel. Written in the ’70s, it was banned briefly after the 1979 revolution, presumably because of lewdness and sexuality. The story apparently struck such a chord in Iran because Pezeshkzad so accurately captured and poked fun at the widespread paranoia toward the British that prevailed there at that time, making it out to be over-the-top and ridiculous usually on the backs of Dear Uncle and his faithful servant, Mash Qasem, both of whom believe that the British monitor and influence basically all aspects of their lives. Taking place in Tehran during WWII, the novel recounts a nameless narrator’s coming of age and his struggle to honour his newly blossoming love for his cousin, Layli, daughter of his Dear Uncle Napoleon, while their fathers quarrelled. Most of the book constitutes family members’ zany attempts to fix this broken relationship and the narrator’s attempts to prevent the romantic advances of Puri, his other cousin (horse-faced and dim, in the narrator’s words), toward Layli.
My Uncle Napoleon puts me in mind of the lighter side Nikolai Gogol, The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled With Ivan Nikoforovich, specifically, in that both authors make fun of their characters’ stubborn pride by having relationships severely deteriorate over such silly, petty little things––calling someone the most hurtful of terms (a goose) in the case of the Ivans; the production of a “dubious sound” (aka, farting) in the case of Dear Uncle. But more stronger will Pezeshkzad’s story likely put readers in mind of P. G. Wodehouse, as it involves proud artistocrats sneaking around, eavesdropping, and getting way in over their heads when their surreptitious schemes come into fruition. And it’s these characters that make My Uncle Napoleon such an enjoyable read. The aforementioned, well-meaning Mash Qasem and his rambling tall tales are certainly worth a special mention, but, to me, the charismatic, lascivious Asadollah Mirza stole most passages in which he took part. His acerbic banter and long talks with the narrator extolling the virtues of “taking women to San Francisco” (his slang for taking them to bed) inject a great deal of exuberant fun into the story, but there’s more to it than that. While we only see only limited sides of most characters, Asadollah is the one who becomes most well defined by the end, and it’s such a surprise. Given how lighthearted and carefree he comes off through most of the book, I didn’t expect that he would bring about the serious, melancholic tonal shift by the end.
And this shift was likely an important part of the reason why My Uncle Napoleon stuck with me by the end. Sure, it was funny, hilarious at times, but it was the sudden heart that presents itself in the middle of the comedy that made clear that Pezeshkzad had more to present here than just laughs. Beneath the surface is a sober look at the uncertainties of growing up, of trying to navigate changing emotions and attempting to understand love and loss in an environment where it’s difficult, almost impossible, to find advice that’s thoughtful, knowledgeable, and truthful. That something so effectively captured the sentiment of the times, that it could sincerely address some of the difficulties of leaving childhood behind, and that it could be legitimately funny while doing this is all likely a big part of why it resonates so strongly among so many.