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Friday, May 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"My Uncle Napoleon": Something funny is going on in Tehran

Special to The Seattle Times

"My Uncle Napoleon"
by Iraj Pezeshkzad,
translated by Dick Davis
Modern Library, 509 pp., $13.95

Originally published in Iran in 1973 and adapted into a hugely popular television series, "My Uncle Napoleon" is widely regarded as the most important and well-loved work of Iranian fiction since World War II.

Reading it today is like watching a rerun of "I Love Lucy": The slapstick and farcical elements are still funny, but the endless repetition, stereotypical characters and nudges and winks have long since been replaced by a more straightforward style of humor.

Who's to say which is more enjoyable? It probably depends on your mood. Set in 1940s Tehran, the book is a dated family comedy-satire, and it makes a refreshing change from our preoccupation with Iran as a revolutionary and vengeful theocracy.

The introduction by Azar Nafisi ("Reading Lolita in Tehran") is negligible, but translator Dick Davis' preface is excellent.

Uncle Napoleon, so called by his nieces and nephews behind his back, worships Napoleon and his many exploits. This deluded man, who is really a pensioned-off Cossack who fought with the Russians, has created a rich fantasy life in which he is the slayer of any dragon that happens along.

His Faithful Servant, Mash Qasem, who wasn't even with him in the war, encourages "Dear Uncle," as he is called to his face, in his tale-telling, and embellishes the tales each time they are told, thus solidifying his own position as irreplaceable.

Dear Uncle has a paranoid fear of the British, believing they are coming for him at any moment because of their many (imagined) defeats at his hands. This fear is handily exploitable, and the narrator's father takes full advantage of it, with clever and tragicomic results.

The 13-year-old narrator, who remains nameless, discovers early on that he is in love with Layli, Dear Uncle's daughter. This will create endless complications, since Dear Uncle has already found a spouse for Layli.

Most of the action is conversation, whispering and shouting, taking place in the extended family compound, with its lovely garden shared by all.

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This microcosm of the larger world is the setting for all the familial acting-out of phobias, jealousy, gossip, backbiting and Dear Uncle's high dudgeon. He "trembles with rage" with amazing regularity.

The universal themes of family loyalty, disloyalty, dirty tricks and other recognizable behaviors show us that Iran on the homefront, anyway — is not a whit different from anyplace else.

Much has changed since 1970, but one thing remains constant: The women are nonpersons, with the exception of the stock players: the Harridan, the Virginal Child-Woman and the Temptress. Some things never change.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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