In the central courtyard, in the middle of a family party, in mid-century Tehran, a fart rings out. Or was it a fart? A cat? A cat’s fart? The sound of a chair being dragged across the stone ground? Solving this riddle means calling on Deputy Taymur Khan and drawing examining magistrate Shamsali Mirza out of retirement. The absurd lengths to which the family goes in pursuit of this “dubious sort of sound” epitomizes the naughty hilarity of Iraj Pezeshkzad’s 1973 novel, My Uncle Napoleon.
Among other works, Pezeshkzad wrote Mashalah Khan in the Court of Harun al-Rashid (1971) and some bitingly satirical essays about the Islamic Republic of Iran. But Napoleon, adapted into a wildly popular television series in the late 1970s, is by far his most famous work. The story unfolds from the viewpoint of the novel’s nameless narrator, a teenage boy who is in love with his cousin Layli—he is desperate to prevent her being married off to their other cousin, Shapur. The main problem is Layli’s father, nicknamed “Dear Uncle Napoleon” for his obsession with the French emperor Bonaparte, with whom he feels a spiritual affinity. Dear Uncle (in Persian, Da’i Jan) has nothing but disdain for his sister’s husband, “an ordinary person” from “the provinces.” Alas, for our narrator, that mere provincial is his father.
This story of thwarted young love, though, only paves the way for the novel’s real subject: Uncle Napoleon’s political paranoia. The “dubious sort of sound” heard in the family courtyard in the novel’s opening pages becomes an object of investigation because Dear Uncle thinks it may be a sign that the British are coming after him. Dear Uncle is convinced not only that the British are plotting against him personally (for having fought against them during World War I), but also that they are behind any and all calamitous events in Iran’s modern history and political present.
Dear Uncle has a point. During most of the 19th century, Iran was a pawn in Russia’s, Britain’s, and France’s competitive colonial projects, and by the fin de siècle, Britain had control of large portions of Iranian infrastructure. While Britain did not officially colonize Iran, it nevertheless exploited its resources (initially tobacco, subsequently oil) by manipulating the brutal and corrupt Qajar monarchy. Uncle Napoleon’s conspiracy theories would certainly have resonated with the novel’s first readers, in the 1970s, who would have recognized the continuation of British influence right up into the reign of the Shah. Even paranoids, as they say, have enemies.
Pezeshkzad’s novel is about what it means to be absolutely convinced that hidden machinations are taking place beyond one’s ken. Dear Uncle is both the protagonist of the novel and a minor character; he is the center around which the novel’s cacophony of events takes place, though rarely their primary actor. Dear Uncle’s convoluted imagination is symptomatic of a peripheral existence: knowing that political schemes are being hatched, but able to experience them only at a distance, he turns to tall tales as a way of regaining epistemic control.
Pezeshkzad turns a penchant for ludic invention into something more than mere political allegory; it becomes a covert organizing principle for the novel as a whole.
It makes perfect sense, then, that Uncle Napoleon and his faithful servant, Mash Qasem—with whom he forms a Don-Quixote-and-Sancho-Panza-esque duo—claim, falsely, to have fought in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906–11. And that they tell everyone within earshot that, during World War I, they fought valiantly against the British in the Battles of Mamasani and Kazerun, changing the number of British they killed with each telling.
Ultimately, Dear Uncle is not wrong that the British are exercising control over Iranian politics—even if his stories about how that control occurs are, in their specifics, sheer fictions. But he is also not wrong in another, more immediate sense. Plots are taking place around him, and they often are happening at his expense, but simply in a different way than he expects.
Upon learning, for instance, that Uncle Napoleon is planning to take his family away from Tehran to escape the encroaching British, the narrator and his friend, Foreign Ministry Official (and bawdy trickster) Asadollah Mirza, ask for the help of their new neighbor, an Indian man they come to call “Brigadier Maharat Khan.” Uncle Napoleon is suspicious that the Brigadier is a British agent sent to spy on him. Knowing this, the narrator and Asadollah use the Brigadier as a pawn to sabotage Dear Uncle’s intended departure, since the narrator can’t imagine being separated from Layli.
Asadollah hatches a plan: he will disclose to the Brigadier that Uncle Napoleon is leaving for a trip to Nayshapur by way of Qom. The Brigadier is to bid Dear Uncle goodbye on the day he plans to leave and, “during the course of the conversation to mention, casually and naturally as it were, the name of the town Nayshapur.” This way, Uncle Napoleon will be confirmed in his suspicions that the Brigadier is a spy and will stay put in Tehran. Asadollah’s tactic works—the Brigadier slips the word “Nayshapur” casually into conversation with Dear Uncle. Dear Uncle is subsequently thrown into a panic and determines to secure help from the Germans to fend off what he now knows, without a shadow of a doubt, is the scheming of “these English wolves” to wage “a war of nerves against [him].” This he does by way of a secret code involving the phrase, “My late grandfather is eating ab-gusht [mutton stew] with Jeanette McDonald”—a sentence each of us should find reason to say at least once in our lifetime.
Pezeshkzad turns this penchant for ludic invention into something more than mere political allegory; it becomes a covert organizing principle for the novel as a whole. Qamar, the narrator’s cousin, gets pregnant out of wedlock, so the family has to cover it up by marrying her to a bald man they force to wear a wig; the family has to fend off the local butcher, who’s come to kill one of the cousins for having cuckolded him; the narrator kicks Shapur in the groin, rendering his genitals temporarily inoperative; and so on and so forth. Lacking any real dramatic ramifications, these boisterous vignettes simply proliferate, calling attention to their own fictionality.
The novel is not, however, altogether plotless. Dear Uncle dies of cardiac complications brought on by a nervous breakdown, but not before fulfilling his dying wish that Layli be married to Shapur. The narrator’s heartache sends him first to the hospital, then to Beirut with Asadollah till after World War II, then to Paris, and finally back to Tehran. We learn in an epilogue that the narrator is writing the novel’s last lines from Geneva. (Food for thought: Pezeshkzad’s own first love was a young woman whose well-to-do father disapproved of him, and he himself currently lives and writes in Paris.)
I was awfully young when my father urged me to read My Uncle Napoleon. “It’s one of the funniest things you’ll ever read,” he said. His recommendations had been right before (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Northanger Abbey, Great Expectations), but at 10 I was put off by Napoleon’s length, and never even began. Arriving at it two decades later, I experienced a strange form of recognition, a moment of cognitive reorientation, or contact. Unbeknownst to me, a whole fictional world had been sitting in my father’s head. Now I too had arrived there. And though this world was full of invented stories, false in all their details, I nevertheless felt I had come to know something fantastically true.
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.