Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Iraj Pezeshkzad : My Uncle Napoleon

This comic novel, first published in 1970, had me weeping with laughter in the first chapter.

But the laughter disappeared as it methodically ground out its tale over the next 500 pages, interweaving several stories:

*the teenage narrator's first love
*the political-paranoid fantasies of his beloved's father (the "Uncle Napoleon" of the title)
*the escalating squables between the narrator's father and Uncle Napoleon
*the loutish misadventures of Dustali Khan (who seems to be a cousin of the above)

All of the characters are quite shallow and cartoonish.

But I suppose that what is remarkable is their relentless energy to keep whacking each other over the head, like "Punch and Judy" on steroids.

And the writer's relentless energy to mock the political paranoia of "Uncle Napoleon" who, with assistance of his hilarious loyal servant, Mash Qasem, has fantasized an heroic past for himself battling the British empire. (just like the first Napoleon once did)

Though I think that paranoia concerning the British was well justified -- seeing as the story is set in the forties, when, indeed, Britain did invade Iran in order to open a supply line to help Stalin against Hitler. And during a period when Britain had a monopoly on Iranian oil ( paying a mere 15% of the un-audited profits) -- and only a decade before Britain would get the Eisenhower regime in the U.S. to undermine the popular Iranian government that was trying to nationalize the oil wells, and use a coup to establish Pahlavi Jr. as the puppet-shah.

But even as an ex-patriot, Pezeshkazad had to know all that history as well, so all of his mocking only serves to express the difficulty of his own position -- i.e. that of an educated, secular, and thoroughly alienated modern Iranian.

Just like the smart, vigorous young Iranian sculptor I knew in the early seventies. His family was connected to the Shah's regime -- his uncle was some kind of police chief -- but he could only do what he wanted in America. Very upbeat -- very fun -- very charming fellow who, like Asadolla Mirza, the anti-hero of this novel, seemed dedicated to taking every attractive woman to bed.

A thoroughly disfunctional society - which is only saved from being tragic by the fact that nobody gets really hurt - despite the occasional shotgun blast or clubbing with a leg of lamb.

And note that this story is written in 1970 -- i.e. before the Islamic revolution had institutionalized hypocrisy and repression.