My Uncle Napoleon

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Overview

The most beloved Iranian novel of the twentieth century

“God forbid, I’ve fallen in love with Layli!” So begins the farce of our narrator’s life, one spent in a large extended Iranian family lorded over by the blustering, paranoid patriarch, Dear Uncle Napoleon. When Uncle Napoleon’s least-favorite nephew falls for his daughter, Layli, family fortunes are reversed, feuds fired up and resolved, and assignations attempted and thwarted.

First published in Iran in the 1970s and ...

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Overview

The most beloved Iranian novel of the twentieth century

“God forbid, I’ve fallen in love with Layli!” So begins the farce of our narrator’s life, one spent in a large extended Iranian family lorded over by the blustering, paranoid patriarch, Dear Uncle Napoleon. When Uncle Napoleon’s least-favorite nephew falls for his daughter, Layli, family fortunes are reversed, feuds fired up and resolved, and assignations attempted and thwarted.

First published in Iran in the 1970s and adapted into a hugely successful television series, this beloved novel is now “Suggested Reading” in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. My Uncle Napoleon is a timeless and universal satire of first love and family intrigue.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A gift both to readers fascinated by other cultures and to lovers of fiction for fiction’s sake.”
The Washington Post Book World

Readers can gain a more balanced impression of Iran from this novel, which looks at life from the kind of humorous perspective few Westerners may associate with the current regime in that country.”
The Christian Science Monitor

“A masterpiece of contemporary world fiction.”
Baltimore Sun

“Howlingly funny . . . [a] tender, salacious and magical Iranian import.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A giddily uproarious mixture of farce and slapstick.”
The Atlantic

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The obsessions of Dear Uncle Napoleon, as Pezeshkzad's eponymous Iranian patriarch is nicknamed, furnish this epic, episodic farce with a multitude of mock heroic elements: the "centuries old" honor of his petty aristocratic family; the propriety of his distant relatives; the care of his prize sweetbrier; his mythologized exploits in a Cossack regiment; his hero-worship of Bonaparte; and, above all, his paranoia about English international intrigue on his doorstop. Dear Uncle's extended family's antics don't so much distract him as exacerbate his eccentricities with each new misunderstanding, private feud, clandestine affair and arranged marriage. Told from the nave perspective of Dear Uncle's least-favorite nephew who is chastely, adolescently in love with his daughter, Pezeshkzad's tale, first published in Iran in the early 1970s, seems innocently obsolete after the Iranian Revolution, like Wodehouse after the Blitz, with its comedy relying heavily on conventionsverbal tics, frenetic dialogue, farcical action and acrobatic reversals of fortune. Pezeshkzad supplies an instantly recognizable, universal cast: the foolish family retainer the Sancho Panza to Dear Uncle's Quixote, the worldly and womanizing uncle, the disgruntled brother-in-law, the officious local police officer, the brawny butcher with an attractive younger wife. While such characters made the novel a huge bestseller and a national touchstone for comic types in Iran, they don't make the best international travelers, and stateside readers may have trouble discerning, or caring about, how they satirize specific elements of Iranian society. July
Library Journal
Originally released in Pezeshkzad's native Iran in 1970 and then translated into English in 1996, this work gets the Modern Library treatment, which includes a new intro by author Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran). Though the book is probably unfamiliar to most American readers, it is considered one of Iran's modern classics. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An uproarious and endearing Iranian novel, first published in Iran over twenty years ago, which became the basis for a highly popular television series.

The story tells of an unruly extended family, living within and around a walled enclave in Tehran in the early 1940s—and specifically of said family's domination by its "Dear Uncle Napoleon" (the portentous rubric by which its fussbudget megalomaniac despot is addressed) as observed and recorded by Uncle's unnamed nephew, whose idealistic love for his beautiful cousin Layli forms one of the two major plotlines here. The other is Uncle's paranoid conviction that all evil flows from his country's ill-advised friendliness with foreign nations, especially Great Britain (the story is set at a time when England and Russia separately schemed to control Iran's oil resources, and preferential trade status was granted the hated British by an impoverished national treasury). Uncle is a brilliant comic creation, whose monstrous egomania and folly are shown all the more powerfully through his unjudging nephew's (usually averted) eyes. Neither his false claim of military heroism nor the fulsome letter he composes to Adolph Hitler (describing his own resistance to British colonialism and soliciting the Führer's protection), significantly ruffles the novel's essential sunniness and serenity. And Pezeshkzad surrounds his memorable antihero with a gallery of superbly drawn supporting characters: Mash Qasem, the resourceful servant who plays pragmatist Sancho Panza to Uncle's self-absorbed Don Quixote; henpecked Dustali Khan, whose fear of his shrewish wife Aziz is vividly exacerbated by an almost Bobbitt-like marital misadventure; and Deputy Taymur, a choleric police investigator who discovers labyrinthine plots in every innocent passing remark, and provides a hilarious counterpart and parallel to Uncle's embattled dignity.

Our own paranoid image of Iranians as bomb-toting fanatics looking for Salman Rushdie under every rug might just be altered by this wonderful comic novel, one of the most entertaining books we're likely to see this year.

Kirkus Reviews
"An uproarious and endearing Iranian novel... one of the most entertaining books we're likely to see this year."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812974430
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/11/2006
  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 287,961
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Iraj Pezeshkzad was born in Tehran in 1928, and educated in Iran and France where he received his degree in Law. He served as a judge in the Iranian Judiciary for five years prior to joining the Iranian Foreign Service. He began writing in the early 1950s by translating the works of Voltaire and Molière into Persian and by writing short stories for magazines. His novels include Haji Mam-ja'far in Paris, and Mashalah Khan in the Court of Haroun al-Rashid. He has also written several plays and various articles on the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution. He is currently working as a journalist.
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Reading Group Guide

1. In her Introduction to My Uncle Napoleon, Azar Nafisi suggests that readers “will recognize that while the characters in this novel are excessively and jubilantly Persian, they are no different from other citizens of the world.” What are some specific examples of universal characters, relationships, and situations portrayed in the novel?

2. How did Dear Uncle Napoleon get his nickname, and why is he so obsessed with the British?

3. The Washington Post describes the novel as “a raunchy, irreverent, hilarious farce wrapped around a core of quiet sorrow.” Which plotlines best exemplify these two extremes, and how successful is Pezeshkzad at blending broad comedy with a thread of realism?

4. In his Afterword, Iraj Pezeshkzad talks about “traditional customs of society” that kept him apart from his first love and caused her to marry another man. He also confesses that the naïve young narrator of My Uncle Napoleon was inspired by his own experiences. Drawing on examples from the book, can you identify the Persian social customs and traditions that keep the narrator and his beautiful cousin Layli apart?

5. Why does Uncle Napoleon prefer Puri over the young narrator as a suitor for his daughter? What does the narrator think of Puri?

6. According to Azar Nafisi,  “Uncle Napoleonites can be found anywhere in the world and among the different strata of any society.” What is an Uncle Napoleonite? Would this label fit anyone that you know?

7. Throughout the novel Mash Qasem frequently remarks, “Why should I lie? To the grave it’s ah . . . ah . . . !” What does he mean by this?

8. What role does Asadollah Mirza play in the extended family, and why is he so well liked by his relatives, despite the fact that most of them view his moral standards as “shameless”?

9. Consider the different couples depicted in My Uncle Napoleon, including the narrator’s parents, Aziz al-Saltaneh and her roving husband, Dustali Khan, and the simple Qamar and Cadet Officer Ghiasabadi. How do love, courtship, and marriage in 1940s Iranian society, as portrayed in Pezeshkzad’s novel, compare to the customs that were in place in this country during the same time period?

10. Why does Uncle Napoleon write to Adolph Hitler, and how does he view the notorious German leader?

11. Dick Davis, the translator of My Uncle Napoleon, writes about the immense popularity of Pezeshkzad’s novel in Iran. Why do you think this novel, first published in 1973 under the Shah’s regime and banned after the 1979 Revolution, struck such a chord and is now considered a seminal Persian work?

12. According to a reviewer from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the publication of My Uncle Napoleon “may do more to improve U.S.-Iranian relations than a generation of shuttle diplomats and national apologies.” Do you agree? Can works of fiction really give us insights into people from other parts of the world? Can you think of other literary works that might fall into this category? Discuss.

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