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Iraj Pezeshkzad, celebrated Iranian satirist and author of ‘My Uncle Napoleon,’ dies

Iranian author Iraj Pezeshkzad speaks at Stanford University in 2014. (Roozbeh Jafarzadeh/Stanford Iranian Studies Program/AP)

Iraj Pezeshkzad, an Iranian writer whose satirical 1973 novel “My Uncle Napoleon,” affectionately skewering the foibles of his countrymen and -women in the decades before the Islamic Revolution, became a phenomenally popular work of modern Persian literature, died Jan. 12 in Santa Monica, Calif. He was believed to be 95.

The cause was a stroke, said his son, Bahman Pezeshkzad. Mr. Pezeshkzad had lived in exile in France since shortly after the 1979 revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme religious leader of Iran. Mr. Pezeshkzad was visiting family members in the United States when the coronavirus pandemic began and had remained in the country ever since.

Set in Tehran during World War II, “My Uncle Napoleon” centered on the titular protagonist, a would-be aristocratic patriarch beset by paranoia about British meddling in the life of his family and his country, and a vivid cast of characters including his faithful manservant and a lovesick young nephew, who narrates the story.

Dick Davis, who translated “My Uncle Napoleon” into English, described the book in an interview as “more Rabelais than Tolstoy,” “the most popular novel that has ever been written in Iran” and perhaps “the funniest novel in Persian.”

“How is one to convey the extraordinary charm and power of this author?” the cultural commentator Christopher Hitchens once wrote in the Atlantic, describing Mr. Pezeshkzad’s novel as a “love story enfolded in a bildungsroman and wrapped in a conspiracy theory.”

“My Uncle Napoleon” sold millions of copies and was made into a TV series that aired on Iranian television in the late 1970s. The series was so popular, it was said, that the streets of Tehran emptied of traffic when a new installment aired.

“The whole country would come to a standstill when it was shown,” recalled Mohammad Batmanglij, the owner of Mage Publishers, a publishing house devoted to Persian literature that released Davis’s English translation in 1996.

The satire of “My Uncle Napoleon” was directed chiefly at Iranian conspiracy theories surrounding the British, who, along with the Soviets, occupied parts of Iran during World War II with objectives that included securing the country’s oil reserves. Later, in 1953, the British assisted the CIA in a successful plot to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, further fueling suspicions among Iranians about a British hand in all of the country’s affairs.

“If there was an earthquake,” Davis quipped, “somehow the British had engineered it.”

But the novel also took passing swipes at Islamic clerics, mocking them as hypocrites. “My Uncle Napoleon,” which the clerics regarded as obscene, was banned after the revolution but has remained in clandestine circulation, a piece of samizdat preserving the memory of an era of Iranian history as it fades ever deeper into the past.

“Let us imagine we are in the process of creating a much-needed reading list for experts and analysts on Iran,” Azar Nafisi, the author of the best-selling memoir “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” wrote in the Guardian in 2006. “I would put ‘My Uncle Napoleon’ in a cherished place very near the top.”

“ ‘My Uncle Napoleon’ is in many ways a refutation of the grim and hysterical images of Iran that have dominated the western world for almost three decades,” she continued. “On so many different levels this novel represents Iran’s confiscated and muted voices, revealing a culture filled with a deep sense of irony and humor, as well as sensuality and tenderness.”

Some of the tenderness in the story derived from the narrator’s love of his cousin, Layli, the daughter of Uncle Napoleon. Mr. Pezeshkzad wrote in an afterword to the book that “if I wanted to make any claims of realism for this novel, it would be as a love story taken from my own life experience.”

“When I was a little older than the novel’s narrator,” he recalled, “a young woman and I fell in love, and there were many obstacles to our love.” Like the romance in the novel, theirs went unfulfilled, and the woman married the son of a wealthy merchant.

Some time later, Mr. Pezeshkzad wrote, “it occurred to me I could write a novel about my own experiences. However, after I had written a few pages, I gave it up. The reason was that I realized I was involuntarily venting all my anger and anguish on my beloved, despite the fact that, imprisoned by social custom as she was, she was entirely innocent and was probably no more happy than I was.”

Mr. Pezeshkzad did not abandon his literary project, however, and tried yet again.

“I found that in presenting her through the absurd story of Uncle Napoleon,” he wrote, “I was able to do her justice, and to describe her in her real innocence. I could follow my heart and remember her, and have the sweet perfume of her love refresh the atmosphere of poisonous suspicion and plotting with which she was surrounded.”

Iraj Pezeshkzad was born in Tehran in the late 1920s, but because of inconsistencies and omissions in documentation, his exact date of birth could not be determined. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a physician.

Mr. Pezeshkzad studied in Iran and later in France, where he received a law degree. He returned to Iran and became a judge but, unhappy in the profession, later worked in the Iranian Foreign Ministry under the shah.

He began his literary career in his 20s, his son said, translating works by French authors including the satirists Voltaire and Molière and trying his hand at magazine articles and stories of his own. In addition to “My Uncle Napoleon,” Mr. Pezeshkzad’s novel “Hafez in Love,” translated by Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi and Patricia J. Higgins, was published in English in 2021.

Mr. Pezeshkzad’s wife, Mahin Chaybani, died in 1979 after two decades of marriage. Their son, of Paris, is his only immediate survivor.

The title of Mr. Pezeshkzad’s celebrated novel gave rise to an expression in Farsi, translated as “Uncle Napoleonism,” referring to a tendency to indulge in conspiracy theories about the British. To many Iranians, the character of Uncle Napoleon seemed real. More than a few times, Davis said, the author was stopped by readers who asked whether, perchance, he knew their grandfather or uncle.

“There are enough Uncle Napoleons in our country,” the British magazine Prospect once quoted Mr. Pezeshkzad as remarking, “to make up several Napoleonic armies, all of them products of the same school of thought.”

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