January 14, 2022
Iraj Pezeshkzad, an Iranian author whose bestselling comic novel, “My Uncle Napoleon,” lampooned Persian culture’s self-aggrandizing and paranoid behavior as the country entered the modern era, has died. He was 94.
The travails of Uncle Napoleon, whose delusions have him seeing Britain’s hand in the troubles plaguing his waning days of his aristocratic family during World War II, became one of the most-beloved television serials ever in Iran when it aired in 1976.
The fervor of the 1979 Islamic Revolution saw the book banned and the series never aired again on Iranian state television. Pezeshkzad himself would ultimately land in Los Angeles, part of an emigre society of Iranians still there that see the California city jokingly referred to as “Tehrangeles” even today.
Pezeshkzad’s words and turns of phrase from the novel still litter Iranian culture today, including raunchy references to “San Francisco” as an innuendo for sexual liaisons. The same goes for passages about the power of love, as described in one scene by Uncle Napoleon’s long-suffering servant, Mash Ghasem.
“When you don’t see her, it’s like your heart is frozen,” says the servant, portrayed in a softly-lit basement scene in the series by famed actor Parviz Fannizadeh. “When you see her, it’s like a bakery oven is lit in your heart.”
Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency quoted Davood Mosaei, who published Pezeshkzad’s books, as confirming his death on Wednesday. No cause of death was immediately offered. Foreign-based Farsi-language television channels also reported his death.
Iranian state media did not report on his death, though the British ambassador to Iran offered his sympathy.
“My sincere condolences and sadness at the passing of one of Iran’s great literary figures – Iraj Pezeshkzad – whose subtle yet powerful satire is an enduring window onto Iranian culture,” Simon Shercliff wrote on Twitter.
Born in Tehran in the late 1920s, Pezeshkzad came of age at the start of Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty. In “My Uncle Napoleon,” he focuses on an aristocratic family from the Qajar dynasty, which had ruled Persia for over 100 years. Several live in a compound with a vast garden, where the story takes place.
The late essayist Christopher Hitchens once referred to the novel as “a love story enfolded in a bildungsroman and wrapped in a conspiracy theory” — using a $10 word for a coming-of-age tale. The narrator loves Uncle Napoleon’s daughter, his cousin, but ultimately never marries her.
But the story does more to explain the mindset of Iranians, who in a generation found themselves dragged from a nearly feudal, rural lifestyle into the modern era of cityscapes. As Persia formally became Iran, it became the target of world powers.
First, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran in 1941 and deposed Shah Reza Pahlavi, worried about his overtures to Adolf Hitler in Germany. His young son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, took the throne. In 1953, a CIA- and British-backed coup cemented the shah’s power and overthrew the country’s elected prime minister.
But even before the modern era, weaker Persian dynasties found themselves subsumed by powerful foreign powers. That paranoia bleeds into modern Iran, where its theocracy now finds itself targeted in attacks over its accelerating nuclear program but also has the tendency to blame all its woes on conspirators abroad.
“Although the book is not political, it is politically subversive, targeting a certain mentality and attitude,” wrote author Azar Nafisi in 2006. “Its protagonist is a small-minded and incompetent personality who blames his failures and his own insignificance on an all-powerful entity, thereby making himself significant and indispensable.
“In Iran, for example, as Pezeshkzad has mentioned elsewhere, this attitude is not limited to ‘common’ people but is in fact more prevalent among the so-called political and intellectual elite.”
That’s something Pezeshkzad said came even from birth in his family.
“When I was learning to talk, the words that I heard after bread, water, meat and so on were, ’Yes. it’s the work of the British,” he once told a 2009 BBC documentary.
The publication of “My Uncle Napoleon” came in the early 1970s, as literacy rates raced upward along with global oil prices, fueling the shah’s modernization efforts in the country. The book sold millions of copies and brought about the televised serial of the same name three years later. Iranians remember streets clearing in Tehran as it aired.
Pezeshkzad himself served as a cultural official in the Foreign Ministry under the shah. But soon, he would flee Tehran forever with the arrival of the Islamic Revolution, joining Iranian Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar in Paris and his National Resistance Movement of Iran. Even the shah would blame the Soviets and British for having a hand in being ultimately pushed from power.
“By the time I wrote this novel, everyone had pretty much realized that British imperialism with all its power and greatness had withered away,” he told the BBC. “However, I had underestimated this phobia and especially after the revolution, I realized it was — and still is — extremely strong.”
He described having people praise him for seeing the British hand everything — the exact opposite of what he tried to say in his novel.
“I felt as if a bucket of cold water had been poured over me,” he added.
He later moved to Los Angeles, where he occasionally lectured at universities. In March 2020, he gave an interview to the tabloid Chelcheragh marking the Persian New Year, in which he described being unable to read or write any longer due to macular degeneration. He said those he once knew in Tehran all had died with age, but he longed to return home one last time.
“I wish I could come to Iran. Visit my city, my own Tehran,” he said. “How can a person not miss his city?”