Matt Iraj Bizshekzad, the Iranian author whose best-selling comedy novel, “My Uncle Napoleon” is a satire of the arrogant and selfish behavior of Persian culture as the country entered the modern era. He was 94 years old.
Uncle Napoleon’s Pains, whose delusions made him see Britain’s hand in the troubles plaguing his dwindling aristocratic family’s days during World War II, became one of Iran’s most beloved TV series of all time when it aired in 1976.
The fervor of the 1979 Islamic Revolution led to the book being banned and the series never to be broadcast again on Iranian state television. Ultimately, Bizshekzad himself landed in Los Angeles as part of an immigrant community of Iranians who are still there and see the California city jokingly referred to as “Tehranjali” even today.
Bishkezad’s words and phrase shifts from the novel are still scattered in Iranian culture today, including obscene references to “San Francisco” as a reference to sexual relations. The same applies to passages that talk about the power of love, as described in one of the scenes by Mash Kassem, Uncle Napoleon’s long-suffering servant.
“When you don’t see her, it’s as if your heart is frozen,” says the maid, who was portrayed by famous actor Parviz Vanizadeh in a softly lit basement in the series. “When you see it, it’s like a bakery oven lit in your heart.”
The semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency quoted Daoud Moussaoui, who published Bezechkazad’s books, as confirming his death on Wednesday. A cause of death was not immediately provided. Farsi-language foreign television channels also reported his death.
The official Iranian media did not report his death, although the British ambassador to Iran expressed sympathy.
Simon Shercliffe wrote on Twitter: “My sincerest condolences and sorrow for the passing of one of Iran’s great literary figures – Iraj Bezechkazad – whose gentle and powerful satire is a lasting window into Iranian culture.”
Bizshekzad was born in Tehran in the late 1920s, and grew up at the beginning of the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty. In “My Uncle Napoleon,” he focuses on an aristocratic family of the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Persia for more than 100 years. Many live in a compound with a spacious garden where the story takes place.
The late essayist Christopher Hitchens once referred to the novel as “a love story wrapped in a love story and wrapped in a conspiracy theory”—using the word $10 for an adulthood story. The narrator loves Napoleon’s cousin, his cousin, but in the end he never marries her.
But the story further explains the mindset of Iranians, who within a generation found themselves drawn from a semi-feudal, rural lifestyle to the modern age of cityscapes. When Persia officially became Iran, it became a target of world powers.
First, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran in 1941 and ousted Shah Reza Pahlavi, worried about his overtures to Adolf Hitler in Germany. His young son, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, took the throne. In 1953, a CIA and British-backed coup consolidated the Shah’s power and overthrew the country’s elected prime minister.
But even before the modern era, the weaker Persian dynasties found themselves ruled by powerful foreign powers. This paranoia is carried over to modern Iran, where its clerical regime now finds itself the target of attacks due to its accelerating nuclear program, but also tends to blame foreign conspirators for all of its problems.
Author Azar Nafisi wrote in 2006: “Although the book is not political, it is politically subversive, targeting a particular mindset and attitude.” A powerful entity, which makes itself important and indispensable.
“In Iran, for example, as Bishkezad has mentioned elsewhere, this attitude is not restricted to ‘ordinary’ people but is in fact more prevalent among the so-called political and intellectual elite.”
This is something Pezeshkzad has said even since he was born into his family.
“When I was learning to speak, the words I heard after bread, water, meat, etc. were, ‘Yes. He once said in a 2009 BBC documentary.
The publication of “My Uncle Napoleon” came in the early 1970s, as literacy rates soared 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 streets in Tehran while it was broadcast.
Bezhekzad himself worked as a cultural official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the Shah. But he will soon flee Tehran forever with the arrival of the Islamic Revolution, joining Iranian Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar in Paris and the Iranian National Resistance Movement he leads. Even the Shah would blame the Soviets and the British for their eventual removal from power.
“By the time I wrote this novel, pretty much everyone had realized that British imperialism in all its might and greatness had faded,” he told the BBC. “However, I underestimated this phobia and especially after the revolution, I realized that it was – and still is – very powerful.”
The people praising him for seeing the hand of the British described everything – quite the opposite of what he tried to say in his account.
“It felt like a bucket of cold water had been poured on me,” he added.
He later moved to Los Angeles, where he occasionally lectured at universities. In March 2020, he gave an interview to the tabloid Chilchirag on the occasion of Persian New Year, in which he described not being able to read or write anymore due to macular degeneration. He said that everyone he knew in Tehran had died of old age, but he longed to return home one last time.
I wish I could come to Iran. Visit my city, my Tehran. “How can a man not miss his city?”
Gambrell reported from Dubai, UAE. Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed to this report.