This extract is taken from the recent Strange Times, My Dear, an admirable PEN anthology of Iranian fiction and poetry released in paperback this spring. (The title echoes the refrain with which Ahmad Shamlu ends every stanza of “In This Blind Alley,” his famous poem about the revolution.) Anyone wanting to sample the range and depth of the country’s contemporary writing would do well to begin here. The authors not only deal with every “transgressive” subject, from booze to sex, but also illustrate something that is often overlooked in the monochrome presentation of their country in the West: the diversity of Armenians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Azeris that helps characterize Iranian society. (The collection is rather silent on the Kurds, a minority from whom we can expect to be hearing more, but it does contain a contribution from Roya Hakakian, whose molten yet tender memoir of growing up Jewish in the years of revolution, Journey from the Land of No, is itself one of the jewels of the exile literary renaissance.)
Some older readers of this essay will remember Reza Baraheni, whose 1977 book, The Crowned Cannibals, did much to alert the West to the sheer exorbitance and cruelty of the Pahlavi pseudo-dynasty. Baraheni is a Turkish speaker from Tabriz, and his poems, which lay a heavy emphasis on the material and the earthy, contain allusions to Ezra Pound, Walter Benjamin, and Charles Baudelaire. In one of the book’s poems, “In The New Place, or Exile, A Simple Matter,” he reminds us that Napoleon thought of mud as a fifth element. Baraheni’s life experience is not unrepresentative: prison under the shah, participation in the revolution of 1979, swift disillusionment with the rise of Khomeini’s despotism, horror at the terrifying war subsequently unleashed by Saddam Hussein, a further spell in prison under the clerics, and then exile. A great number of Iran’s best minds and voices are compelled to live at least partly in diaspora in Europe and North America, and although this is greatly to our benefit and pleasure (vide the work of Azar Nafisi on her Tehran Nabokoviennes), we cannot forget what a price it exacts from Iran itself. Meanwhile, for those who bear the heat and burden of the day in the country itself, we can guess the weight of the atmosphere from another line of Ahmad Shamlu’s poem: “They smell your breath lest you have said: I love you.”
Mention of Napoleon brings me to the work of Iraj Pezeshkzad. How is one to convey the extraordinary charm and power of this author? A little preface is needed. Iranian intellectuals are nostalgic (I do not think this use of the term is improper) for two moments in their nation’s agonized history. The first is the 1906 constitutional revolution, when the liberal and cosmopolitan elements of the society, though eventually suppressed by Russian imperial gunnery, managed to establish a precedent for a modern and outward-looking system. The second is the atrocity of August 19, 1953, when the elected nationalist government of Mohammed Mossadegh was forcibly removed by an Anglo-American intrigue that instated the shah as a dictator and returned the country’s main natural resource to foreign control. These two external interventions gravely stultified Iran’s development and had a retarding effect on the national psyche. It became almost customary and automatic, in a land that is so naturally internationalist, to attribute literally everything to the machinations of designing outsiders. (The Khomeinist regime, needless to add, exploits this plebeian tendency to this day. It also avails itself of the antique Shia concept of taqqiya, or the religious permission to dissemble in dealings with infidels. One might call this the top-down version of ketman.) As an Englishman I found it almost flattering to encounter the number of people in Tehran who—culturally rather despising Americans—believed that the British government determined absolutely all matters. Why, had they not even installed the mullahs in 1979 as a revenge for the way that the United States had taken the lion’s share of oil after 1953? The British ambassador, whose official dominion includes two especially nice walled garden estates in upper and lower Tehran, confessed to me that he sometimes found this paranoia useful, since it meant that nobody would decline to meet him.
In 1973, Pezeshkzad published My Uncle Napoleon, a cheerful satire of this very mentality, and it became the best-loved work of fiction in Iran before it was banned by the clerics during the revolution. Likewise set in an enclosed garden house that contains several branches of an extended family, it could be summarized as a love story enfolded in a bildungsroman and wrapped in a conspiracy theory. Except that it cannot be summarized. Not even Azar Nafisi, who contributes a sparkling introduction to the new American edition, can accomplish that. Uncle Napoleon, the micro-megalomaniac who dominates the little world of the family, is convinced that the British imperialists really care about him and mean to get him by fair means or foul. A beautiful counterpoint to his fantastic solipsism is the appalling verbosity of his manservant, Mash Qasem. Some have claimed to see a Bertie-and-Jeeves duo in the setup; I think this is misleading, except with respect to the amazingly complex and farcical love affairs that form the subtext. Rabelais and Cervantes are in there somewhere as well. To return to my Caliban metaphor, we might remember that it was Swift who defined satire as a looking glass in which people discerned every face but their own. In the vanity and stupidity of Uncle Napoleon, the religious thugs of Qum must have glimpsed at least something, but the joke is on them, because in today’s widespread Iranian samizdat the book—and a now-banned television series that was once made of it—is a blockbuster.
Pezeshkzad also makes a contribution to Strange Times, My Dear, in the form of a gem-like story titled “Delayed Consequences of the Revolution.” Now an exile himself, he makes gentle but deadly fun of those émigrés who forgather, like the White Russians of old, in a café society devoted to toasting the ancien régime. In this context—sometimes to be found in today’s Los Angeles—old men forget, as well as remember, or remember “with advantages,” what deeds they did. In what I like to think of as a homage to ketman, Pezeshkzad illuminates the private codes and allusions in which the participants convey discrepant meanings to one another, and also perpetuate the mythology of foreign conspiracy. (“If you want to explain something to your compatriot in your own language, you can use five or six words and get the meaning across, but to explain the same thing to a foreigner in another language, you’ll need to employ at least fifty or sixty words.” This is offered as an account of the difficulty of elucidating simple property deals in the days of “His Highness the Shah.”)