Iraj Pezeshkzad (1927–2022)

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Real Rating: 4.75* of five, rounded up because it's a beautiful story beautifully translated

The Publisher Says: Shams al-Din Mohammad Hafez is in love. He is in love with a girl, with a city, and with Persian poetry. Despite his enmity with the new and dangerous city leader, the jealousy of his fellow court poets, and the competition for his beloved, Iran's favorite poet remains unbothered. When his wit and charm are not enough to keep him safe in Shiraz, his friends conspire to keep him out of trouble. But their schemes are unsuccessful. Nothing will chase Hafez from this city of wine and roses.

In Pezeshkzad's fictional account, Hafez's life in fourteenth-century Shiraz is a mix of peril and humor. Set in a city that is at once beautiful and cutthroat, the novel includes a cast of historical figures to illuminate this elusive poet of the Persian literary tradition. Shabani-Jadidi and Higgins's translation brings the beloved poetry of Hafez alive for an English audience and reacquaints readers with the comic wit and original storytelling of Pezeshkzad.

Iraj Pezeshkzad was born in Tehran in 1928 and educated in Iran and then France, where he received his law degree. He was a retired diplomat, journalist, and writer. He was the author of several plays, short stories, and novels, including My Uncle Napoleon. He died on 12 January 2022 in Los Angeles.

Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi is senior lecturer of Persian language and linguistics at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University.

Patricia J. Higgins is a University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Emerita at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh.


My Review
: First, read this:
He agrees with everyone's opinion, from black to white. With his constant refrain, "We are all children of this land," he recognizes both sides: he who believes it is night, and he who believes it is day.
"O light of my eyes, don't forget that until a few months ago you and I were among the court favorites of the then-shah. If some of these 'many' {whom Hafez claims will hide him from pursuit} enjoyed our poetry, it was because the poetry pleased the shah. The power and honor of the shah was behind our poetry. Now our poetry is just poetry. And perhaps in the eyes of these 'many,' it is not even poetry. Perhaps some of the men who praised the poems of Shams al-Din Hafez without hearing them will come to agree with His Honor, the police chief, and consider them dirty."

This seems to me to represent the tone and tenor of the book's translation...I think it also gives a flavor of the world in which we're spending a few hours. The court of an insecure, unworthy ruler, whose jobs are done for him not by workers or even lackeys, but by henchmen, is a fertile place to set a love story. Especially when the lovers are unable to come together because the obstacle to them getting their love consummated is one of the aforementioned henchmen.

Our narrator, Mohammad Golandam, is Hafez's brother-in-law and long-time best friend. He's a sensible sort; we can not say the same for Shams al-Din...he who will become, in the fullness of time, Hafez; the two men are only twenty-three at the time of this story. It's easy to see why Golandam, as Hafez (let's use his famous, and short, handle from here on) addresses him, is anxious and on needles and pins. Hafez has made many a sarcastic, cutting remark in his poetry about the new power-wielder Mobarez al-Din Mohammad Mozaffar. This self-installed prince is a "...blood-shedding creature of God {who} understands neither literature nor poetry. He is one of those dull-hearted people who, in the words of Shams Qeis Razi, don't 'distinguish between the sound of music and the braying of an ass.' His source of pleasure and happiness is cutting off heads," entirely enough to strike poor Golandam with near-lethal agita given Hafez's indiscreet, but truthful and honest, characterizations of him:
To get his aversion to him off his chest, {Hafez} had used this phrase extremely carelessly in a lyric poem about repentance after a life of drinking and wenching:
The morality officer became a pious sheikh and forgot his debauchery.
It is my story that remained throughout the bazaar.

It's not too hard to imagine a thin-skinned leader whose response to verbal disrespect shown by those less powerful than he is being, um, disproportionate, is it. The problems are, of course, many in a world run by incompetent and malicious people. The story's not complete without wild schemes and convoluted plots and hilarious misinformation campaigns...there are no better stories, in my never-humble opinion, than the ones about True Love Thwarted!

And True Love it very much is. This poem is what Hafez writes for his morning glory Jahan while he was imprisoned by his oft-insulted rival for her affections, and while she was scheming to get him out by pretending to agree to marry his captor, and while Golandam and Hafez's honorary father schemed to get her out of the unwanted marriage and back into Hafez's arms:
I swear on the life of the belovèd that if I could reach my soul,
That would be the least of the gifts to her by her slave.
If my heart was not bound to a strand of her hair,
How would I have been at peace in this dark vessel made of dust?
Your face is like the sun in the sky, unique in the heavens;
If only your heart were a bit more kind.
You said to me, "What is the worth of the dust under her feet,
If the precious life were eternal?"
I wish you would emerge through my door like a beam of light,
That divine fate would shine on my eyes.
The cypress would acknowledge its lowliness compared to her stature
If it had ten tongues like the wild lily.
You wouldn't fall out of tune with Hafez's melody,
If you weren't the companion of the morning songbirds.

Okay, I don't understand one damn word of that, but I know yearning and longing and sheer miserable wretched being-in-loveness when it smacks me across six or seven centuries. There's plenty of this poetical stuff peppered around the story. There are many readers who will see that as a plus; I want, therefore, to be clear that you will be reading a lot of poetry when you read this novel. (And the clever-clogs blog readers will now be recalling my stance on poetry, and looking at this review's star rating, and drawing some brow-knitting conclusions.)

So why am I praising this book, this poetry-laden book about a poet in love with a woman? Because it's such a delight to read. Because Hafez, every time someone talks sense to him, says "mm hmm" and carries right on being In Love with Jahan and acting as if by sheer force of his will, backed by the spiritual power generated by the huge dynamo of his adoration for Jahan, Things Will Come Out Right.

But I won't tell you if they do or they don't because some things you need to find out for yourownself.

The book concludes with a Dramatis Personae, and a Glossary; both are very handy. The Dramatis Personae include markers for characters based on historical personages, meaning those not marked are invented; though the names and actions of historical people are used, they're probably all best seen as fictional. It's worth noting that, even though Hafez's love object in this story is Jahan, a woman, there's no way in Farsi or in Persian poetry's conventions for that to be certain. It's a feature of the language that pronouns aren't gendered. While Hafez is in love with a woman in twenty-first century Iran, there's absolutely no reason for that to be the case in fourteenth-century Shiraz. I merely note this fact, quite firmly stated by the translators, as a datum of some interest to some readers.
… (mer)
richardderus | Apr 25, 2022 |
farrhon | 7 andra recensioner | Mar 22, 2022 |
A sister's daughter's serious boyfriend recommended this book as an example of Persian humor. It is a farce, first and foremost. The culture has certain similarities with Indian culture...except for the farce! Asadollah reminded me of a work colleague of ours. Basically, I struggled to stick with it!
kaulsu | 7 andra recensioner | May 15, 2021 |
My Uncle Napoleon is the farcical family drama centered around the delusional Dear Uncle Napoleon - a tyrannical patriarch whose stories of fighting lowly bandits in the South eventually evolve into full-blown epic battles with the British Empire. Basically the book is centered around the conflict between fiction and reality, between truth and lies - in a society where this distinction (or the moral benefits of this distinction) is not always evident. The plot consists of the unnamed narrator trying to get his father and Uncle Napoleon to bury the hatchet so that he has a chance of marrying his cousin - not an easy task by any standards.

In the book there was a stark contrast between the narrator, who directly and honestly confessed his love to his cousin Layli, Uncle Napoleon's daughter, and the secretive scheming, euphemisms and lies that pervaded the interactions and conversations among the rest of the family. Some of this is due to the nature of Iranian culture, I presume (for example the non-naming of private parts, which of course does not prevent them from being the primary comedic material of the story), and part of it is just the family not being able to come to terms with their problems. There is also definitely something socially critical in the way the characters are portrayed (gossiping, overly concerned with their family "honor", their craftiness), although they are not specific to any single culture or society. However my Iranian friend, who recommended this novel, does consider the characters distinctly Iranian and the novel distinctly critical of Iranian society, so I'll go with that.

To be honest I wanted to like this book more than I did. I'm still in love with it as a concept, as a book about the nature and consequences of delusion and about the demise of family unity in the face of pride and vindictiveness. I loved the idea of a family drama and a farce set in pre-revolution Iran, but... I definitely have problems with the way this novel was executed, and I did not enjoy it quite as much as I could have.

For one: why the first-person narrator? He was totally unneeded, and his existence necessitated the most ridiculous hideouts and eavesdropping for every scene in which he was not openly present. Having the story told this way did not contribute to it positively; it only made it sound silly and unrealistic. I mean there are only so many places you can hide.

The writing was also far from impressive, at least most of the time. This may be the fault of the translation, but it seems Pezeshkzad himself has approved it, so I can still hold him accountable. There was a lot of telling, and very little showing, the language was often repetitive - e.g. a section where Dear Uncle Napoleons smile is described as "seraphic" three times within two pages - that's lazy - and it often shifted from very sophisticated to very simple in the same paragraph.

In regards to the humor, I did have some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and the deputy and his murder investigation methods were especially funny in my opinion. There were also lots of sex jokes, which I hadn't anticipated, and they were funny... the first few times. Reiteration is the key with this book - the same jokes, the same descriptions (what do I know about Layli other than that she has big, black eyes)... It got a bit tedious after the first half of the book, although the writer was certainly adept at creating all sorts of new scandals and conflicts to keep the plot moving forward.

I also felt the characters were very one-dimensional; they never developed or showed psychological depth (with the exception of Uncle Napoleon and Asadollah Mirza). They were fun, but they never escaped their molds, which made them a bit boring after a certain point.

The ending was unexpectedly sad and very poignant. I wish that more of the book had been like it. Pezeshkzad shows there that he is capable of depth, but he just prefers to make penis jokes I guess. It's probably the ending that convinced me to allot this book 3 stars and not 2.5.

Why should I lie? To the grave it's ah, ah... I have to say that I'm most certainly glad to have read this book, which is so important culturally to modern Iran, but I admit that I'm a bit disappointed with the technical aspect of it - I did not find it well-written or well-constructed, although it was quite entertaining, imaginative and touched on some important issues in an interesting way along with providing a different and much-needed view of Iran and its people and culture.
… (mer)
bulgarianrose | 7 andra recensioner | Mar 14, 2018 |



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