The ‘Uncle Napoleon’ of Persian fiction has just passed away

Iraj Pezeshkzad, who passed away in Los Angeles at the happy and fulfilling age of 94, was an Iranian institution.

Book cover of the 1996 English translation of My Uncle Napoleon
An entire generation of Iranians grew up on Pezeshkzad's spectacularly popular satirical novel My Uncle Napoleon, writes Dabashi. [Wikimedia commons]

In the early 1970s, I was a green undergraduate student in the cosmopolitan capital of pre-revolution Iran. I would divide my time between working at odd jobs to keep a roof over my head and attending to my studies. I was more of a migrant labourer than a free-spirited student. My education was from the ground up – tied more to the street than the classroom, dependent mostly on cheap magazines and banned books found in second-hand booksellers.

Every morning, I would rush to the station at the intersection of what were then Pahlavi Avenue and Shah Reza Street to catch a bus to my campus on the northern side of the city. But once a week I would make sure to first stop at a nearby newsstand to buy the latest issue of Ferdowsi – the leading literary magazine of the time (something between the Times Literary Supplement in the UK and Harper’s Magazine in the US).

On those days, I would joyfully hop on the bus, walk to the last row of seats, sit down by the window and thumb through the pages of the crisp magazine to find the latest instalment of Iraj Pezeshkzad’s Da’i Jaan Napoleon (Beloved Uncle Napoleon). I would then giggle to myself as I read until I reached my destination.

The day that I got to read a new instalment of Pezeshkzad’s masterpiece was always the highlight of my week. Those excerpts briefly made my self-conscious, hardworking, lonesome, and anxiety-ridden life in Tehran happy, memorable, homely.

That book, which was later translated into English by Dick Davis as “My Uncle Napoleon”, was the literary space where we provincial boys and girls laughed our hesitant being-in-the-world into the bosom of the cosmopolitan worldliness of our capital that had embraced us beyond our reach.

A crucial role of national literature is to help lonesome souls from towns and villages across vast homelands to feel part of a national consciousness. In that sense, I became an “Iranian” only when I sat at the back of that bus, read an instalment from that book, and thought myself happily welcomed into the literary history of my homeland.

Satire and the politics of indirection

Iraj Pezeshkzad (1928-2022), who recently passed away in Los Angeles at the happy and fulfilling age of 94, was an Iranian institution. An entire generation of Iranians grew up on his spectacularly popular satirical novel My Uncle Napoleon. More recently, another book by Pezeshkzad, Hafez in Love, was also translated into English by Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi and Patricia J Higgins. But still, quite a serious number of his books remain delightfully tucked away in their original Persian and the world at large is blissfully unaware of their existence.

Iraj Pezeshkzad was born to a middle-class family in Tehran in the 1920s. He completed his early education in Iran and went to France to study law. He eventually returned to his homeland and found himself working in the foreign ministry. Like most other members of the Iranian literati, he had to earn a living doing something other than what he lived to do. But writing satire was thus his avocation – and he soon emerged as one of the finest satirists of his homeland.

Rising to the very top of the literary institution of Persian satire and staying there comfortably for decades is no mean feat. Indeed, among iconic figures from the distant past, like Saadi and Obeyd Zakani, and more recent heavyweights like Ali Akbar Denkhoda and Iraj Mirza, Pezeshkzad is in mighty company.

The art of laughing at conspiracy theories

My Uncle Napoleon, which is Pezeshkzad’s most famous book, is set in Tehran in the early 1940s, during the Allied occupation of Iran. The story mostly takes place in the nameless narrator’s home – a huge compound where three families live under the tyranny of a colourful, paranoid patriarch. The patriarch’s visceral suspicion and hostility towards the British have made him sympathetic to the French conqueror Napoleon and thus he is nicknamed “Uncle Napoleon”. From the geopolitics of the region to European politics and British colonialism, all come to this extended family’s home to play in the pages of Pezeshkzad’s novel.

Soon after I left Iran for the US in 1976, the eminent filmmaker Nasser Taghvai turned My Uncle Napoleon into an exceptionally successful television series. The TV adaptation was so successful that it generated a whole new generation of enthusiastic fans for the story and its rich and complex characters – especially the titular protagonist Uncle Napoleon, his sycophant personal butler Mash Qasim, and the narrator, a high school student who is in love with his cousin, Uncle Napoleon’s daughter.

Since then, fans of this story have been divided into two – those who had read the book and those who had watched the series. I never saw the series in its entirety, except for a few scenes here and there from bootlegged copies in the US. Despite my deep admiration for Taghvai and his cast, I could never identify the characters they depicted as the ones I came to love in Pezeshkzad’s novel, for by the time I first saw the series, I had already created a clear mental picture of everyone in that story.

Years after the series aired, in 1996, Iraj Pezeshkzad’s masterpiece found a new life and audience when Dick Davis expertly translated it into English. Other translations soon followed and gradually created a new readership community for the novel – consisting mostly of second-generation Iranian immigrants in the US, Europe and beyond.

The novel thus had phases of popularity in vastly different eras from the early 1970s to this day. There is an emotive distance separating these phases, for when we were reading the novel in instalments in the early 1970s we had no clue a revolution would soon turn the whole country upside down. But by the time it was published in book form, its subsequent television adaptation appeared, and the story became iconic to a new audience, the first cries of revolution were loudly heard across Iran. And finally, when the novel’s English translation came out in 1996, the revolution was not even a distant memory but just a historical fact for most of its new readers. There is therefore a whole archaeology of social knowledge in and around this iconic novel that would be entirely lost to the serene disposition of its repeated edition of the Persian original or English translation.

What holds that social knowledge around the novel together in its varied gestations is the satirical casting of the Iranian obsession with conspiracy theories – especially the trauma-born compulsion shared by many Iranians to believe the British are behind everything and anything that goes wrong in their country. Well, the British were indeed behind a lot of things – including the coming to power of Reza Shah and the CIA coup of 1953 – so the Iranians can perhaps be excused for some conspiratorial thinking.

But Pezeshkzad’s novel neither denies the colonial conspiracies of the British against Iran and its region nor allows the Iranian obsession with conspiracy theories to run wild without balancing it with a larger narrative plot and a cast of characters that cuts it to realistic size. Such preoccupation with conspiracy theories is of course exclusive neither to the Iranians nor any other nation. From the ones about the assassination of JFK to those about 9/11 and the presidential election that dethroned Donald Trump, Americans have more than their share of conspiracy theories. And the fact that this beloved Iranian novel satirises the national obsession with the British, does not mean the British were not a chief cause of calamity in modern Iranian history. It just paints a comical but also honest picture of one aspect of Iranian history and identity.

From when I first started reading it in instalments as a young university student in the early 1970s, to the emergence of its TV adaptation and English translation, My Uncle Napoleon had a long journey. In this eventful half-century, it became canonised in the pantheon of modern Persian film and fiction and helped immortalise its author as one of the finest literary masters of Persian literature.

That Pezeshkzad died in “Los Angeles” and not in “San Francesco” is a precious little bittersweet joke only those who have read the novel or seen the series would understand. But the rest should just count their blessings – for there is a whole new world of joy and excitement waiting for them under the cover of My Uncle Napoleon.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.