Language and Literature-My Uncle Napoleon: A Novel

Article excerpt

My Uncle Napoleon: A Novel, by Iraj Pezeshkzad. Tr. by Dick Davis. Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1996. 499 pages. Gloss. to. p. 507. $29.95.

Reviewed by Hasan Javadi

The novel and short story, in their modern form, were introduced into Persian literature earlier in this century. It was in 1921 that Muhammad `Ali Jamalzadeh published the first collection of Persian short stories, his Farsi Shakar Ast. In the last two decades, Persian fiction has reached new heights, and many remarkable novelists and short story writers have published their works. But, strangely enough, there are very few works of fiction in the field of humor, comedy and satire. Apart from some works by Jamalzadeh and Sadiq Hidayat and a few later writers, there are not very many comic novels in Persian.

The works of Iraj Pezeshkzad (b. 1928 and now living in Paris) are exceptions in this respect: Bubul (1960), a collection of stories, Mashallah Khan at the Court of Harun al-Rashid (1971), a satirical work in the tradition of Gulliver's Travels or travellers in time, and Anternasional Bacheh Poru-ha (1984), a hilarious collection of 17 satirical essays on the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iranian expatriates in Paris, are only some of his works. But undoubtedly his masterpiece is Dai Jan Napoleon (My Uncle Napoleon), which, soon after its publication in 1972, was made into a very successful television series. As Dick Davis writes, "It is almost impossible for an Iranian to read the novel without the gestures, voices and faces of the actors who portrayed the characters being present in his or her mind. Certain of these portrayals, especially the actor Parviz Sayad's portrayal of the roue with the heart of gold, Asadollah Mirza, and the late...Parviz Fanizadeh's portrayal of Dear Uncle Napoleon's servant Mash Qasim, have achieved the status of inviolable icons in popular Iranian culture" (p. 7).

Dai Jan Napoleon is the story of the writer's love for his cousin Leila when both were teenagers, and it centers on the events and people who live in several family homes clustered in a larger house belonging to his uncle (Dai Jan Napoleon). Two characters dominate the story: the uncle whose boundless admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte has earned him the nickname of Uncle Napoleon, and his servant Mash Qasim. The former is a retired officer who constantly ruminates over his old adventures, battles and skirmishes with the British troops and insurgent tribes during World War I. Each day he comes to identify himself more and more with Napoleon.

Qasim is a Sancho Panza to this quixotic character, and he continually elaborates on the martial tales of his master in order to reaffirm his Napoleonic valor. Ironically, though Qasim's motto in life is "never to tell a lie," he has ready answers for every question and claims to have taken part in every conceivable event.

Uncle Napoleon lives in his own imaginary world, which is constantly reaffirmed by his servant and others. Gradually, he comes to believe that he is a person of considerable importance. At the occupation of Iran in 1941 by the British and Soviet forces, he thinks that the British are after him. He writes a letter to Adolf Hitler, asking for help. Intertwined with the hallucinations of this comical character are many family intrigues and quarrels.

Pezeshkzad admirably depicts a large number of characters involved in the story. One of these is Uncle Assadollah, a carefree lady's man, who once had a trip to America and spent a pleasant time in San Francisco. …