Open Letters Monthly on My Uncle Napoleon

I remember when the Modern Library first published Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon a few years, but this review by Bryn Haworth makes it sound really interesting. (When Byrn writes about the book itself. The stuff about today’s Iran is good, but this novel sound intriguing to me for other, more literary reasons.)

The beauty of My Uncle Napoleon is that it is blissfully funny. Though it has the slapstick mayhem of many Egyptian comedies, it is more than pure farce. And although it has debts to European literature – My Uncle is very much like Don Quixote, or Sterne’s Uncle Toby (he even has his own Corporal Trim) – it is not a plagiarizing tribute to the classic comic novel. This is a book that manages to create memorable and believable characters while shamelessly sending them up, loading them with catchphrases and putting them in bizarre situations. Behind all its tomfoolery lie the serious issues of love, sexuality and, most importantly, paranoia on a grand scale. [. . .]

This principle is also behind My Uncle’s adoration of Napoleon himself, a martyr to the cowardly back-stabbing English. He quotes Napoleon at the slightest opportunity, often absurdly, as when he says that ‘great men are the children of danger’ and manages to imply that he himself is childish. In an undistinguished career as a member of the gendarmerie, My Uncle has done little more than sort out some minor criminals, but in his imagination – stoked by the narrator’s father who seeks revenge on the old fool – these become the famous battles of Kazerun and Mamasani, the details of which he retells and elaborates at every opportunity. [. . .]

Any good farce has a complex plot of mounting absurdities, and I won’t attempt to describe them here. The fun has a lot to do with their chaotic silliness and the hypocrisies that are revealed. Since the characters all live in houses around a garden, they are constantly awat=re of each other’s existences. Uncle Napoleon is able to control the flow of water to the others, and he uses this ultimate weapon against the narrator’s father. (Even this little ruse has a prescient quality as the supply of water becomes a political issue in the Middle East.)

The entire piece is definitely worth reading—as is the rest of Open Letters Monthly

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