My Uncle Napoleon
By Iraj Pezeshkzad
Translated by Dick David
Mage Pubs., 507 pp., $29.95
First published in 1970 in the author's native Iran, where it was subsequently made into a very popular television series, Iraj Pezeshkzad's comic novel, "My Uncle Napoleon," follows the farcical misadventures, feuds, romances, and rivalries of an upper-class extended Iranian family in Tehran. The narrator is an innocent lad of 13 when the story begins.
The unnamed adolescent boy has fallen in love with his pretty cousin Layli. Unfortunately for him, Layli is the daughter of his wildly overbearing, irascible, and suspicious Uncle Napoleon, who plans to marry her off to another of her cousins, an overeducated fool who is certainly unworthy of so lovely a wife.The fool's father is Uncle Napoleon's brother.
Whereas our nice young hero's father, who married Uncle Napoleon's sister, is not one of Uncle's favorites people. He (quite rightly) considers Uncle Napoleon a pompous windbag and takes every opportunity he can get to poke fun at his countless foibles.
Uncle Napoleon's name, of course, is not really Napoleon: This is just what his disrespectful relatives call him behind his back on account of his hero worship of the famous French emperor. Uncle Napoleon's vainglorious, untruthful tales of his own past military exploits bear an uncanny resemblance to the battles fought by the French general.
Insofar as the members of Uncle Napoleon's extended family all reside in the same large compound made up of several homes and gardens, opportunities for mischief, mayhem, and other carryings-on are abundant among this set of easily recognizable character types.
There's Mash Qasem, Uncle Napoleon's loyal manservant, who flatters the master's gargantuan ego, but also tried to keep peace within the family.
There's a resident gossip, who spreads rumors that keep disturbing family peace. And there's enough hanky-panky going on to keep even the most avid rumormonger busy: errant husbands, straying wives, and angry spouses threatening revenge with kitchen knives.
Later, with the World War II going on in the distant background, there's a whiff of espionage - at least in the overactive imaginations of Uncle Napoleon, who becomes so paranoid about the British that he writes a letter to Hitler, begging to be taken under his protective wing.
Among the few sane voices (along with Mash Qasem) is the witty, cynical ladies' man Asadollah Mirza, who comments wryly on the nutty proceedings and tries to give the lovelorn young narrator some practical tips about romance.
In his preface, the book's translator, Dick Davis, an English-born-and-educated associate professor of Persian at Ohio State University, suggests readers can gain a more balanced impression of Iran from perusing this novel, which looks at life from the kind of humorous perspective few Westerners may associate with the current regime in that country.
Life in the lunatic household of Uncle Napoleon, however, does not sound all that much more inviting than life in a fundamentalist theocracy! Davis aptly reminds us that Pezeshkzad's comic characters and situations are not realistic portraits and bear about the same relation to ordinary Iranians as P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster bear to ordinary Englishmen.
By the novel's end, the narrator is a grown man. It is now 1979 and many comic adventures later. For many readers, I suspect 500 pages may be a little long for a farce.