Apr 11, 2017

My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad

The stresses of moving house prevented me from reading this fantastic Iranian farcical novel as quickly as I would have liked, though it provided a welcome respite from the anxieties of the last two weeks. Our first person narrator is a teenage boy, hopelessly in love with his cousin, daughter of the fearsome yet ridiculous personage referred to as Dear Uncle Napoleon due to his obsession with Napoleon and hatred of the British. This is a doomed love; Layli is more or less promised to their other cousin Puri, a sycophantic young man the two lovers despise. Each relative represents an aspect of Persian culture in hyperbolic fashion: the auntie obsessed with death and funerals, the doctor who stubbornly sticks to an obviously incorrect diagnosis just because it's different from the other doctor's opinion, the devoted servant who feeds his master's fantasies of being a war hero, the lecherous uncle who cannot help but meddle in the affairs of others in order to make a joke of them. These caricatures interact in uproarious, hilarious fashion, as tense situations go from bad to worse with more than one participant stirring the pot into a violent froth.

Published in 1973 then later banned by the Islamic Republic for its politically subversive overtones, My Uncle Napoleon takes aim at the tendency of even intellectual Iranians to blame the British for every ill and misfortune. Underneath this is the more personal tragedy faced by lovers unable to break out of the strictures of marital customs. As a work of Iranian literature, it shines a much-needed light on the culture of Iran before the revolution, and its highly comical nature makes it a joyful, fun read. This is a must for any reader looking to expand their non-Western repetoire.

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