My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”Once upon a time I was like you, too...very sensitive...very melancholy...but time changed me...a person’s body is formed in the workshop of his mother’s body, but a person’s soul in the workshop of the world.”
Our unnamed narrator is a teenage boy who finds himself pulled in all directions by his own burgeoning feelings of love, the squabbles of his extended family, and the generally confusing advice he gets from everyone he knows. He knows one thing for sure, that he loves his cousin Layli, and if he can’t have her for his own, he will just have to kill himself.
The drama of young love, so easy to believe that it is all consuming.
His main obstacle turns out to be his own father, not for the traditional reason that his father doesn’t feel the girl is a good match or the family is not good enough, but because his father has embroiled himself in a personal vendetta to take Layli’s father down a peg or two.
Revenge, as they say, is best served cold, but our narrator’s father is too clever, too ambitious, too impulsive to let the slights against his character remain unchallenged. The Dear Uncle Napoleon is the patriarch of the family. None of his brothers and sisters have moved very far away; in fact, they all live around the same garden and courtyard. Anything that happens to any of them is quickly known by all.
They are all obsessed with one another’s business.
Dear Uncle Napoleon fought in the war, and his stories and his memories about his exploits have grown from minnows to whales. It isn’t completely his fault; his manservant, Mash Qasem, over the years has inserted himself into his master’s memories of the war and continues to add his own fabrications to the odes of war.
Dear Uncle Napoleon has always been an admirer of Napoleon. Fortunately, his delusions about himself have not expanded to the point that he believes that he actually is Napoleon, although as the plot unfolds it becomes touch and go as to whether his mind will remain tethered by slender strands to the truth or whether he will completely be taken over by his own delusions. Not helping the situation is that the British have invaded Iran (the book is set during WWII), and he is convinced that they will arrest and execute him for his daring feats against them in the past war.
The narrator’s father has a fine time playing on those fears.
There is another cousin, Puri, a horse faced young man scared of guns and women in equal measure, whom Dear Uncle has promised will be married to the beautiful Layli.
Uncle Asadollah Mirza, who happens to be my favorite character in the book, is a philandering admirer of widows and wives. He is one of many who have known the charms of Tahereh. ”I became aware of a twinkle in Asadollah Mirza’s eye. When I looked in the direction he was looking I saw in the dimly lit porchway the beautiful glittering eyes of Tahereh.” She is not only beautiful but frequently available. A man can easily find himself in her arms despite the fact that her husband, Shir Ali the Butcher, has killed two men by cleaving them in two and beat up several others who dared to try and woo his wife. ”Shir Ali, the local butcher, was a horrifying man. He was well over six feet tall; his whole body, from head to toe, was covered in tattoos, and there were numerous knife scars visible on his head. His character and temperament fitted his terrifying body exactly.”
Asadollah Mirza is a lover not a fighter. Lust is a sacred feeling for him and must not be ignored. Luckily for him, Shir Ali has found religion and has set aside his cleaver for a leg of mutton as his weapon of vengeance. Asadollah wouldn’t survive his neck cleaved in two, but he might survive a broken skull.
In his mind, as well as the minds of many other men, the allure of Tahereh is worth the risk.
So our Narrator, without other resources for advice, turns to Asadollah who tells him the same thing over and over that he must take Layli to San Francisco. Somewhere along the line the family has seen the movie San Francisco (1936), starring Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald. The starlet has become the symbol in their minds, representing sexual allurement, and taking someone to San Francisco is a euphemism for matching the stem with the flower petals (I guess describing a euphemism with another euphemism isn’t exactly a definition, but if you haven’t figured out what I’m referring to you might identify perfectly fine with our naive Narrator.).
By making love to Layli, our hapless Narrator will force the hand of the Dear Uncle, and he will have to let them marry or face potentially embarrassing the family with a pregnancy out of wedlock. The plot, of course, must take a different turn.
The police are frequently called to the family compound for anything from potential murder to a missing watch. The police add even more humor to a humorous novel. Their interrogation methods are basically to keep their suspects from thinking too much. ”Your answer? Quick, now, immediately, at the double!” This leads to some hilarious answers that lead to more and more trouble for the family.
Mash Qasem begins every statement with: ”Why should I lie?” which makes everyone distrust what he is about to say even more. He isn’t alone; all the characters seem quite comfortable with swearing on everything holy that they are not lying when they are most assuredly telling incredible whoppers.
Everyone is trying to manipulate everyone else. Problems are exasperated by more and more meddling. Those too clever prove too stupid. Those too stupid prove to be too clever. All the characters seem to have too much time on their hands. The plot is like trying to watch three events simultaneously at a circus. It is truly an amazing book and considered by many to be the masterpiece of Persian literature. I haven’t read enough literature from Iran to make that judgment, but I will certainly agree that it is a wonderful book full of contradictions as to how I perceived Iran. There is rampant adultery, the consuming of vast quantities of alcohol, and the breaking of many Islamic commandments. All of which contribute to several scenes that made me laugh out loud. I think Iraj Pezeshkzad was poking fun at the conservative veneer that exists over the entire nation. Certainly, it is exaggerated for comedic effect.
The book was banned at one time in Iran. Pezeshkzad lives in France due to the fact that he was too politically active in the 1970s to live comfortably in the country of his birth. The book was made into a very popular TV series. There are few people in Iran who haven’t met Mash Qasem, Asadollah Mirza, or Dear Uncle Napoleon, either through their TV sets or coming to life in their minds through the printed pages of possibly a black market copy of the book. Iranians are discouraged to read the book, but I will say I for one encourage not only Iranians, but people of all countries to read this marvelous addition to literature. These characters will imprint themselves on you, and for most everyone they will recognize someone in their own family who could have been a member of this cast. I want to thank my friend E____ who recommended this book to me. E____, may you someday experience the same freedoms in your country that I do in mine.
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