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A Deadly Serious Kind of Farce

My Uncle Napoleon

by Iraj Pezeshkzad, translated by Dick Davis
Modern Library, 2006

It’s not every day you stumble upon something funny coming out of Iran. Those with a grim sense of humor might find some of the President’s views comic, but it’s hard to laugh at clowns who have such power in their hands.
 
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.
 

Dear President

What better time to be reading a book this good, notwithstanding the fact that it predates the Islamic revolution? One massive foreign policy issue confronting the new administration in Washington it is the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Nothing could be more deadly serious (though the man himself cuts a ludicrous figure) than the idea of President Ahmadinejad, the populist former Revolutionary Guard and anti-Semitic demagogue, getting his hands on the quickest final solution imaginable to the contradictions in the Middle East, the ultimate sword to cut through the Gordian Knot as Alexander the Great once did, and to avenge his country’s perceived injustices at the hands of the Great Satan (America) and his cousin, the Little Satan (Britain).

Actually, make that three Satans, if he can rid the world of the Zionist threat too. Ahmadinejad is a keen reader of Heidegger, and although he is proud of the fact that he rarely travelled before becoming President, he admits once taking a small trip to Austria, birthplace of another clownish demagogue who even the Germans thought of as a man with a mouthful of dumplings, his Austrian accent was so obvious. No doubt the President is also well aware of the root of the name Iran in the word Aryan. It’s even possible Nietzsche knew about it, hence the name of his hero Zarathustra, derived from Zoroaster, the Persians’ home-grown prophet.

It’s been a long time coming, but perhaps Nietzsche’s prophecy is already being fulfilled. Little Ahmadinejad, he of the innocent look, the oleaginous messages to the West, the polite academic conferences to reconsider the Holocaust, has a personal history that runs parallel to the revolution. Back in the early days – he was a student then – he actually opposed the taking of the American Embassy by force. Now it’s as if he was one of the small rodents scampering around the feet of the giant reptiles, for however often his career is written off in the West, Ahmadinejad has outlasted the revolution’s dinosaurs to emerge as a powerful rival to the clerics. He has managed to threaten their dominance by establishing a cult of the Mahdi, or saviour, who is scheduled to return to the earth at Qom, the very place where the grim Ayatollah himself used to reside. More practically, he has personally championed the development of nuclear power and the enrichment of uranium in defiance of the Western powers. He is not afraid of the big gamble, as was shown in his treatment of the British sailors captured off the Iranian coast. Ahmadinejad dressed them in nice new suits to show how civilized he could be. As the countries around Iran have fallen one by one into American hands, it’s no wonder that he sees himself as the little man sent to rewrite history on behalf of all the little men. That’s exactly how the little man from Vienna felt

The tussle over Iran’s resources and its exposure to foreign interference is a story as long as history itself. After all, Persia was the scene of the oldest cities in the world. Long before the discovery of oil and its exploitation by the British, as long ago as the beginning of European history in fact, Persia was the original Other. Having devised the rudiments of democracy the ancient Greeks went on, with the Persians in mind, to invent the very idea of the Oriental and the Persian Empire was reviled for its tyranny. The Persians were cast in the role of the barbarians, and Alexander the Great famously trashed their ancient capital of Persepolis when it was in his power to do so, but far from obliterating Iran (as Hillary Clinton promised she would) when he had Darius on the run, Alexander horrified his soldiers by accommodating it, adopting the Persian modes of dress and even esteeming its women and its customs. In the phrase later used by the British, Alexander went native. His early death, and the subsequent resurgence of Persia, meant that the world never saw the resolution of the dichotomy the Greeks had invented. Even the Romans were repulsed ignominiously. In its current form of the Crusading West versus those who have declared jihad in the Islamic East, the geopolitics would be remarkably familiar to diplomats from the fourth century, though no one expects Hillary to start dressing in a chador to win the locals’ approval.

To this day there are oral stories about Alexander in Iran. Just as in the modern Arab world with its ‘memory’ of the Crusades, it’s the story of a defeat that carries the strongest charge. But the conquest by the Greeks was a pre-Islamic humiliation, and for the modern, and especially the pious, Iranian patriot the Greeks were long ago replaced by the British and, of course, the Americans as the bogeymen of choice. My Uncle Napoleon describes a real level of paranoia that pre-dates the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It satirizes a reflex of blame leveled at the British and their ’lackeys’ for anything that went wrong with the country, traceable back to the splitting of Persia between the Russians and the British into three zones of influence (the Iranians were not consulted and ended up with the desert part) during the nineteenth century, and to the long wrangles over the concessions the British were awarded to exploit Iran’s oil.

Beyond these specific instances, however, Anglo-Saxon interference has become the universal explanation for all ills. The British were even blamed for the Revolution itself, along with the Americans, with people claiming that if you peeped under Ayatollah Khomeini’s beard you’d see the words ‘Made In England’. The revolutionary state that followed the removal of the Shah managed to embody this paranoia, and My Uncle Napoleon itself was accordingly banned. The television series it had also inspired became a dim memory. Revolutionary Iran is what happens when conspiracy theory becomes official government policy, and as we shall see, it is arguable that the Mr Ahmadinejad has not simply replaced Uncle Napoleon – he is Uncle Napoleon.

Dear Uncle Napoleon

It’s a salutary experience, then, for those who wonder about the postures and intentions of the modern theocratic state to read this book and see something of what has been lost. They say that in present day Tehran the pollution is so bad that the crows have left the city and the flowers that bloom have no scent. It’s also true of course that the religious rulers have brought back public stoning, and have made sure to eliminate unruly pleasure in all its guises. The simple Rabelaisian exuberance of My Uncle Napoleon – it’s constant ribaldry about the body and its fascination, like Lawrence Sterne’s, for the sexual organs and the functions of the human gut – these preoccupations, as much as anything else, were the reason for its excision from the nation’s reading list. The zealots were keen to place the Noble Koran (and not what the novel’s philanderer calls the ‘noble member’) at the centre of society, in fact to make it stand in for culture as such. Although some foreign books are still read in the universities (as Reading Lolita in Tehran testifies), any kind of book that trespassed onto the clerics’ territory was unlikely to survive. Thus it wasn’t just an explicit reappraisal of the Prophet’s inspiration, such as in The Satanic Verses, that attracted their condemnation. Literature itself, and the fictional anarchy it unleashes, could not be tolerated. The Islamic revolution inaugurated a showdown that has yet to be concluded between the absolute value of the word of God and the secular irreverence of literary language, or of cartoons, or of humor itself, indeed any kind of mood music at all that differs from the sanctity of the Muezzin’s call to prayer.

Fiction is the bad child. Its untrustworthiness, its downright flirtation with half-truth and scandal, the way it muddies the ancient (even Zoroastrian) distinctions between truth and falsehood, make it the ultimate bogey of them all, the bogey of bogeys that spooks the Holy of Holies. The Islamic state refuses to let such uncertainties creep into the official fabric of belief, to infest it, and the same kind of people who flourished under Weimar – decadent, polymorphous, perverse – have to be eradicated over and over again, in a continual pest control for the benefit of public virtue. So homosexuals, for instance, are said not to exist in Iran. Instead they are given operations to cure them, sponsored by the state. Women are forbidden to watch football matches lest their lust be inflamed by the sight of masculine prowess. In the film Persepolis we have seen such strictures depicted in black and white, including the raids on drinking parties and the citizen’s arrests for inappropriate attire. Yet it’s as well to recall that in the pictures from the time of the Shah people look remarkably like their contemporaries in, say, France or Britain. And going back further still, to pre-Islamic times, it’s amazing that Herodotus could write this of the ancient Persians’ way of taking decisions:

They deliberate on affairs of weight when they are drunk, and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made. If it is then approved of, they can act on it. If not they set it aside. If they are sober at their first deliberation, they reconsider under the influence of wine.

The tone in Herodotus suggests a certain approval of this method. It was an acknowledgement in its way of the best phase in the process of inebriation, when the wine had an emboldening effect on the mind and could lift the individual above the level of petty conventions. The relative absence of alcohol in modern politics, and the total absence from Iranian politics, cannot be for the good. Yet one doesn’t have to look back this far to find a different, more relaxed polity in Persia. A period almost forgotten by the West and known as the Constitutional Revolution occurred as recently as a hundred years ago, and is recalled proudly by the eponymous hero of My Uncle Napoleon. There is no space here to describe that episode in detail, but it involved a true revolution in ideas that included the setting up of a Parliament, the empowerment of women, and in some cases the dilution of clerical power in favor of Pre-Islamic traditions and multi-ethnic definitions of the people. Unlike the events of 1979 it was a real revolution in thought, and not a reversion to the strict observances of an idealized past. Another lost opportunity came in 1951 with the election of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh as Prime Minister. It is commonly accepted that he was brought down in 1953 by the British in league with the Americans.

Iraj Pezeshkzad

  My Uncle Napoleon was written in the Seventies, so the memory of that interference was fairly fresh in the author Iraj Pezeshkzad’s mind. However, the action of the book is set in the Forties, and the heroic exploits of ‘my uncle’ belong to a (mythical) past even further back than that. This temporal distance, and the multiple layers of reference, extend into the present of the reader – the book has an uncanny way of telescoping time – so when Uncle Napoleon, terrified that the British are out to get him, decides to take action to protect his own backside, he’s easily persuaded to write a letter to Hitler himself in a vain hope that he might be spirited away to Berlin before the avenging English get their hands on him. It’s as if Uncle Napoleon has been drawn into the same Aryan propaganda and Holocaust denial as his present day equivalent, though his escape to Germany doesn’t happen. Instead, the farcical plot gets diverted by the appearance of a shoeshine man who Uncle Napoleon assumes is a German functionary sent to guard him against British perfidy. And yet the current taste for Nazi ideology in the Middle East exists for very similar reasons. Our enemy’s enemy is our friend, and you have to hand it to Hitler, he was no slouch when it came to acting against the Protocols of Zion.

 

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. He illustrates perfectly the psychology described by Luis Bunuel, whereby the mind, as it sinks into dotage, ceases to distinguish between fantasies and real events. But whereas Bunuel appears to have thought he’d slept with Hollywood starlets, Uncle Napoleon is persuaded that he fought off English generals, humiliated them in the field, and to some immodest extent determined the course of world history. In this fiction he is abetted by Mash Qasem, a servant who has himself become convinced that he was in attendance at all these world historical events, and whose suspicions of the English outdo even his master’s. He is the Corporal Trim of the piece, who does little more than water the plants, but who loves to talk and has a catchphrase that apparently became widely imitated in Iran at the time of the TV series, “Why should I lie? From here to the grave it’s ah…ah,” with which he twice flags up two fingers.

Mash Qasem is devout. Fearing he has been shot at one point he immediately regrets that he will never reach Mecca. He is also an extension of his master’s defensiveness, convinced that the English are squint-eyed to a man, when of course we all know that they have bad teeth. It’s possible that he has never actually seen an Englishman, yet he insinuates that they are not real men (“the English aren’t men at all!”), that they are, in all candor, gay, and are not to be trusted. “You could say I’ve brought up these English,” he says, “I know ’em better than their own moms and dads do.” They’re brutal, they tie their enemies across the mouths of cannons at the least provocation, and they hate patriots like his master. It’s reminiscent of the way Corporal Trim gets himself upset over the horrors of the Inquisition. And of course it further deepens Uncle Napoleon’s paranoia. Early on, even before the worst mental confusion has set in, this conversation occurs:

[Mash Qasem:] “Just a couple of days ago in the bazaar they were talkin’ about you and I said if the English hadn’t been against the Master, there wasn’t nothing’ he couldn’t have done.

“Yes, if it wasn’t for the power of the English I could have done many things.”

Mash Qasem, who had heard so many times from Dear Uncle’s own lips the whole story of how the English hated him that he knew it by heart, nevertheless asked, “But now, truly, sir, why do them English hate you so much?”

“That hypocritical wolf England hates everyone who loves the soil and water of his own country. What sin had Napoleon committed that they harried him like that… That they broke his spirit like that so that he died of grief? Just that he loved his country. And this for them is a great sin.”

The English become the scapegoat for an entire life’s failure, the treacherous weaklings who undermine moral omnipotence. They’re in charge of cutting down the tallest and most luxuriant blooms on the plain. It’s not just paranoia that the novel highlights here, but the way in which individuals and whole countries rationalize their perceived inferiority. It is in fact the deep psychology of the fundamentalist backlash as it is of European fascism. In Uncle Napoleon’s case, however, it leads to the mental paralysis of fatalism. By the end he wishes the English would come and finish him off quickly rather than prolong their persecutions. Uncle Napoleon becomes the fatal hero, the romantic hope of a nation exiled to a psychological Saint Helena and poisoned slowly by his tormentors.

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)

There is also a theme of idealistic love. The narrator falls in love with Layli, Uncle Napoleon’s daughter, and therefore watches with trepidation as his father carefully fosters his uncle’s mania. He is advised by the cunning philanderer Asadollah who, despite his references to San Francisco and Los Angeles, euphemisms for coitus and anal sex respectively, fails to break the boyish spell and spur the narrator into action. There are levels of bodily excess in Asadollah’s universe that would furnish an entire thesis on the lines of ‘The Carnival in Pre-Revolutionary Iranian Popular Culture’. But the themes of sexual license and the desirability of women are perhaps the most dated aspects of the book, with their hint of Benny Hill or the dirty postcard humor of the ‘Carry On’ films. More fundamental than any of this bawdiness is the theme of a nation’s self-perception, and the effect on its history of a collective loss of self-esteem.

___
Bryn Haworth was born in Essex, and now lives in London where he is our correspondent on the literary scene. He is writing a novel and has recently finished a long collection of poems known simply as Obscure Poem.

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