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Iranian Iraj Pezeshkzad, who wrote “My Uncle Napoleon”, has died

Iraj Pezeshkzad, an Iranian author whose hit comic “My Uncle Napoleon” exposed the self-glorifying and paranoid behavior of Persian culture as the country entered the modern era, has died. He was 94 years old.

The woes of Uncle Napoleon, whose ravings show him Britain’s hand in the troubles that plagued his aristocratic family’s declining days during World War II, have become one of the most popular television series. all-time favorites in Iran when it aired in 1976.

The fervor of the 1979 Islamic Revolution saw the book banned and the series never again aired on Iranian state television. Pezeshkzad himself would eventually land in Los Angeles, part of an émigré society of Iranians still there who see the Californian town jokingly called “Tehrangele” 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 depicted in a scene by Uncle Napoleon’s longtime servant, Mash Ghasem.

“When you don’t see her, it’s like your heart is frozen,” says the servant, portrayed in a dimly lit basement scene from the series by famed actor Parviz Fannizadeh. “When you see her, it’s like a bakery oven igniting in your heart.”

Iran’s semi-official 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 TV channels in Farsi also reported his death.

Iranian state media did not report on his death, although the British ambassador to Iran offered sympathy.

“My heartfelt 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 into 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 ruled Persia for over 100 years. Many live in an enclosure with a large garden, where the story takes place.

The late essayist Christopher Hitchens once called the novel “a love story wrapped in bildungsroman and wrapped in 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 history further explains the mindset of Iranians, who within a generation found themselves swept away from an almost feudal rural lifestyle into the modern era of urban landscapes. When Persia officially 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 coup backed by the CIA and the British 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. This paranoia bleeds into modern Iran, where its theocracy now finds itself the target of attacks over its accelerated nuclear program, but also tends to blame all its misfortunes on conspirators abroad.

“Although the book is not political, it is politically subversive, targeting a certain mentality and attitude,” author Azar Nafisi wrote in 2006. “Its protagonist is a narrow-minded and incompetent personality who attributes his failures and his own insignificance to an all-powerful entity, thus making itself significant and indispensable.

“In Iran, for example, as Pezeshkzad has mentioned elsewhere, this attitude is not limited to ‘ordinary’ people but is actually more widespread among the so-called political and intellectual elite.”

This is something that Pezeshkzad said comes from even birth in his family.

“When I was learning to speak, the words I heard after bread, water, meat, etc. were: ‘Yes. that’s the job of the British,” he once said in a BBC documentary in 2009.

The publication of “Mon oncle Napoleon” came in the early 1970s, as literacy rates rose along with world oil prices, fueling the shah’s modernization efforts in the country. The book sold millions of copies and spawned the television series of the same name three years later. Iranians remember cleaning the streets of Tehran when it aired.

Pezeshkzad himself served as a cultural officer in the foreign ministry under the shah. But soon he will 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 the British for contributing to his eventual ousting from power.

“By the time I wrote this novel everyone had pretty much realized that British imperialism with all its might and greatness had vanished,” he told the BBC. “However, I had underestimated this phobia and especially after the revolution I realized that it was – and still is – extremely strong.”

He described people praising him for seeing the Brits hand it all over – the exact opposite of what he tried to say in his novel.

“I felt like a bucket of cold water had been poured over me,” he added.

He then moved to Los Angeles, where he occasionally lectured at universities. In March 2020, he gave an interview to the tabloid Chelcheragh on the occasion of the Persian New Year, in which he described not being able to read or write anymore due to macular degeneration. He said those he had known in Tehran had all died with age, but he was looking forward to returning 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? »


Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed to this report.

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