My Uncle Napoleon
|Original title||دایی جان ناپلئون
Da'i-i jan Napuli'un
|Media type||Print hardcover|
|LC Class||PK6561.P54 D313 1996|
My Uncle Napoleon (Persian: دایی جان ناپلئون, Dâ'i jân Nâpol'on, literal translation: Dear Uncle Napoleon) is a coming of age novel by Iranian author Iraj Pezeshkzad published in Tehran in Persian in 1973. The novel was adapted to a highly successful TV series in 1976 directed by Nasser Taghvai. Though the book and the TV series were briefly banned following the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran, both thrived under- and above-ground and remain popular cultural references for many Iranians to this day. (Nafisi 2006). To this day, it is cited as "the most important and well-loved work of Iranian fiction since World War II" (Ryan 2006) and "a testament to the complexity, vitality, and flexibility of Iranian culture and society" (Nafisi 2006). It is noted for its lampooning of the widespread Iranian belief that the English are responsible for events that occur in Iran. The novel has been translated by Dick Davis into English.
The story takes place at the time of Iran's occupation by the Allied Forces during World War II. Most of the plot occurs in the narrator's home, a huge early 20th-century-style Iranian mansion in which three wealthy families live under the tyranny of a paranoid patriarch Uncle. The Uncle—who in reality is a retired low-level officer from the Persian Cossack Brigade under Colonel Vladimir Liakhov's command—claims, and in latter stages of the story actually believes that he and his butler Mash Qasem were involved in wars against the British Empire and their lackeys such as Khodadad Khan, as well as battles supporting the Iranian Constitutional Revolution; and that with the occupation of Iran by the Allied Forces, the English are now on course to take revenge on him. The story's narrator (nameless in the novel but called Saeed in the TV series) is a high school student in love with his cousin Layli who is Dear Uncle's daughter. The story revolves around the narrator's struggles to stall Layli's pre-arranged marriage to her cousin Puri, while the narrator's father and Dear Uncle plot various mischiefs against each other to settle past family feuds. A multitude of supporting characters, including police investigators, government officials, housewives, a medical doctor, a butcher, a sycophantic preacher, servants, a shoeshine man, and an Indian or two provide various entertaining sequences throughout the development of the story.
Literary significance and reception
My Uncle Napoleon was written by Iraj Pezeshkzad and published in 1973. Loosely based on the author's real life experiences and his love for the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat, the story instantly became a cultural reference point and its characters national icons of the '70s. The novel was translated in 1996 to English by Dick Davis and published by Mage Publishers, a translation that manages to evoke the richness of the original text and is faithful without being literal (Asayesh 1996). The English translation has since been re-published by Random House in 2006 with an introduction by Azar Nafisi and an afterword by the author, Iraj Pezeshkzad.
The novel is a rich and comic representation of the Iranian society of the 1940s, though many characteristics of the story's various characters can arguably still be seen in today's Iranian society. The garden in which the story takes place, "in more ways than one becomes a microcosm of modern Iranian society" (Nafisi 2006). The novel, at its core a love story, unfolds around the young narrator's delicate and pure love for his cousin Layli, a love which is constantly jeopardized by an army of family members and the hilarious mayhem of their intrigues and machinations.
Many phrases and colloquialisms first introduced in the novel have since found their way into daily Persian usage. The most notable of which is "Uncle Napoleonism" or to call someone "Uncle Napoleon", which refers to a belief or a person who believes in conspiracy theories that foreigners, specially the English, are responsible for Iran's misfortunes. Also of note are "going to San Francisco", a euphemism for having sex and "to the grave it's ah... ah...", a phrase used to mock a person who is visibly lying.
Adaptation as a TV series
|My Uncle Napoleon
دایی جان ناپلئون
My Uncle Napoleon title screen
|Format||Comedy, Drama, Satire|
|Created by||Iraj Pezeshkzad|
|Directed by||Nasser Taghvai|
|Narrated by||Houshang Latifpour|
|Country of origin||Iran|
|No. of episodes||18|
|Executive producer(s)||Nasser Taghvai
|Camera setup||16mm film|
|Running time||45 minutes|
|Original channel||National Iranian Radio and Television|
|Original run||1976 – 1976|
In 1976, director Nasser Taghvai turned the novel into a legendary mini TV series, compiling the story in 18 episodes. With an A-list cast, the series was a huge success both with the audience and the critics. It topped the ratings in every airing of its episodes and it was the most watched show when it aired on Friday nights. Many[who?] consider the series to be an ageless masterpiece and the father of modern television comedy in Iran. Many terms coined during the series' run have become part of Persian popular culture. The series was a huge success financially, the production cost has been estimated to be 50 million Rials (equivalent to U$770,000 in 1976) while the broadcaster paid about 200 million Rials, four times the production cost, to buy the rights for broadcasting the series. Due to its extreme popularity, reruns of the series were frequent in the National Iranian Radio and Television until the Islamic revolution of 1979. Although the series has been banned in Iran since the revolution it is still watched and loved by many. The series has been released on DVD by Pars Video, Taraneh Records, and Chehreh Nama.
Cast and crew
Naser Taghvai .... producer
Ali Reza Zarrindast
Amir Farrokh Tehrani
Abdollah Eskandari .... makeup artist
Mohsen Taghvai .... assistant director
Valod Aghajanian, Yadollah Asgari, Hassan Zahedi
- Dear Uncle Napoleon (Daï Jan Napoleon): The patriarch of the family. Dear Uncle is a paranoid, imaginative and delusional character who believes he was involved in many wars against the English army and their "lackeys". The title Uncle Napoleon is sarcastically given to him by his nieces and nephews due to his admiration and obsession with the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
- Mash Qasem: Dear Uncle's faithful servant and butler from a small town, Ghiasabad near Qom. Strongly devoted to Dear Uncle, his claim to fame is to have been involved in battles against the British Army alongside Dear Uncle, the most important of which are the Battle of Mamasani and the Battle of Kazeroun. Overly proud of his native town Ghiaasabad and constantly telling stories of his hometown, he has a tendency to give himself away when hiding the truth by starting his sentences with "why should I lie? To the grave it's ah... ah...ah...a..." (counting four fingers, implying that there are only four steps left to death, hence a lie would not be worth it). Mash Qasem becomes the messenger between the narrator and Layli at times when the two cannot meet, partly as a favour to the narrator and partly to satisfy his own unbounded inquisitiveness.
- The Narrator/Saeed: The narrator of the story and Dear Uncle's nephew. The narrator, who remains nameless and rather arcane in the novel despite being the central figure around whom the story develops, falls in love with Dear Uncle's daughter Layli, one a hot summer day on 13 August at quarter to three in the afternoon.
- Agha Joon: The narrator's father, a pharmacist who is the brother-in-law of Dear Uncle. After years of being ridiculed by Dear Uncle for not belonging to an aristocratic family, he takes his revenge by strengthening Dear Uncle's belief that the English are after him.
- Asadollah Mirza: An official in the Foreign Ministry and half brother (by his father's gardener's daughter) of Shams Ali Mirza. A playboy, Asadollah Mirza doesn't spare any opportunity to seduce the opposite sex with his charm and charisma, irrespective of the subject matter's marital/social status. He was once happily married and in love with a woman until she cheated on him and left him. The "Mirza" of his and his brother's name is an honorific indicating a distant relation to the Qajar royal family which is why he is referred to as "Shazdeh" meaning prince. He becomes a close friend of the narrator during the course of the novel, often trying to help him in his efforts to reach his love.
- Colonel (Sarhang): Dear Uncle's younger brother. A paranoid retired army officer, he retired from the army with a rank much lower than a Colonel, but is referred to as Colonel by the family.
- Dustali Khan: Dear Uncle's brother-in-law and favorite person who is inept at nearly everything and is constantly made fun of by the other members of the family, especially by Asadollah Mirza. His wife once tries to cut his penis off with a kitchen knife after finding out that he has cheated on her. He also gets shot by his wife in the bottom when he impregnates his step daughter.
- Aziz Al-Saltaneh: Dustali Khan's wife and Qamar's mother. A cousin of Asdollah and Shams Ali Mirza.
- Dr. Naser Al-Hokama: An old doctor who is the family doctor and close friend. He has been married three times. His mostly rudimentary knowledge of medicine is often ridiculed in the book.
- Shams Ali Mirza: The older half brother of Asdollah Mirza. A discharged/retired District Attorney. Believes all problems can be solved by interrogation.
- Layli: The only child of Dear Uncle. She and the narrator fall in love but her marriage has been prearranged by the family.
- Puri: The rather clumsy son of Colonel who is destined to marry Layli. A subject of ridicule by the narrator, he is conscripted by the army to fight the Allied invasion, but faints in the battle after hearing a gunshot. He loses one of his testicles in a fight with the narrator, becoming a subject of Dr. Naser al-Hokama's treatments.
- Qamar: The mentally challenged, overweight daughter of Aziz al-Saltaneh from her first marriage and Dustali Khan's stepdaughter. The family goes to great lengths to find her a husband and save her honour after she is found impregnated by Dustali Khan.
- Deputy Taymur Khan: An "internationally renowned" detective famous for his aggressive methods of deduction.
- Cadet Officer Ghiaasabadi: An old opium addicted detective and Deputy Taymur Khan's assistant who eventually marries Qamar and wins her inheritance money, overcoming Dustali Khan's assorted tussles in the process.
- Naneh Rajab: Cadet Officer Ghiaasabadi's mother.
- Akhtar: Cadet Officer Ghiasabdi's sister. A promiscuous woman who is a dancer at a nightclub.
- Asghar the Diesel: Akhtar's boyfriend, a street thug.
- Farokh Laqa: A bitter old woman who has never been married and is always in search of funerals to attend.
- Sardar Maharat Khan: A Sikh Indian businessman; though not a military man, his honorific Persian title of Sardar means "commander". Dear Uncle thinks that he is an English spy.
- Lady Maharat Khan: The Sardar's blonde British wife.
- Shir Ali the Butcher: A giant, violent butcher, very protective of his wife's honour, but too much of a simpleton to realise what's going on in his house. The "Shir" of his name means "lion".
- Tahereh: Shir Ali's lascivious beautiful wife whom everyone in the neighbourhood from Dustali Khan to Asadollah Mirza sleep with.
- Houshang: A local cobbler and shoe shiner whom Dear Uncle believes is sent from the Germans to protect him from the British.
- Seyed Abolqasem: A local preacher.
- Naneh Bilqis: Dear Uncle's maid and chef.
English translation publication history
- 1996, USA, Mage Publishers ISBN 0-934211-48-5, Hardcover
- 2006, USA, Random House, ISBN 0-8129-7443-3, Paperback
My Uncle Napoleon is central to a film[which?] shown on BBC4 about relationships between Britain and Iran.
- Nafisi, A. (2006). "The Secret Garden". The Guardian. May 13, 2006
- Ryan, V. (2006). "My Uncle Napoleon: Something funny is going on in Tehran". The Seattle Times. May 5, 2006
- Asayesh, G. (1996). "Frolicking in a Persian garden". The Washington Post. Sep 29, 1996; WBK4
- Black, Barbara (2006-09-16). "An Iranian classic". The Gazette (Montreal).
- Rubin, Merle. "Echoes of Monty Python In This Iranian Sitcom". Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA).
- Bellamy, John Stark II. "Iran Masterpiece of Lowbrow Humor". Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio).