I feel behind in everything lately. Think I am going through another mid-life crisis. Does anyone have any recommended reading (no Gail Sheehy, please!) to remedy such matters? I know men go out and buy motorcycles and have affairs with young women…what are women supposed to do?
Anyway, despite the machinations of aging, I am making progress on My Uncle Napoleon — only a hundred more pages to go! According to the Kirkus Review, the book is about an “extended family, living within and around a walled enclave in Tehran in the early 1940s—and specifically of said family’s domination by its Dear Uncle Napoleon (the portentous rubric by which its fussbudget megalomaniac despot is addressed) as observed and recorded by Uncle’s unnamed nephew, whose idealistic love for his beautiful cousin Layli forms one of the two major plotlines here. The other is Uncle’s paranoid conviction that all evil flows from his country’s ill-advised friendliness with foreign nations, especially Great Britain (the story is set at a time when England and Russia separately schemed to control Iran’s oil resources, and preferential trade status was granted the hated British by an impoverished national treasury).”
It is an interesting book, which I first found very humorous and now slightly less so. It is a marvel of plot and dialogue…here is just a sample of a scene to give you an idea, with more to come when I finish:
Mash Qasem had picked the ladder up from its place before Dear Uncle’s order was given. Those present didn’t for a moment take their eyes off the form of Dustali Khan, which was shaking on the roof like a nocturnal phantom. Mash Qasem leaned the ladder against the wall, and went up it a few rungs to help Dustali Khan come down.
A few moments later Dustali Khan put his feet on the ground and fainted in Mash Qasem’s arms.
They more or less dragged him over to the carpets and laid him down. Everyone started discussing what had happened and offering opinions as to what it meant.
Dear Uncle Napoleon kept lightly slapping him on the face with the palm of his hand and asking,
“Dustali Khan, what is it? What happened?”
But Dustali Khan, with his dishevelled hair, in his shirt and white, mud-stained longjohns, lay there motionless, with only his lips trembling. We were all gathered in a circle around him.
Mash Qasem, who was massaging Dustali Khan’s feet, said, “It’s like a snake’s bit him some place.”
Dear Uncle threw an angry look at him, “You’re talking rubbish again!”
“Well sir, why should I lie? There was a man in our town who . . .”
“The hell with you and the man in your town. Will you let me see what’s happened?” And then
once again he gently slapped Dustali across the face.
Dustali Khan opened his eyes. Suddenly he seemed to come back to himself and looked from one side to the other. With a nervous movement he clasped both hands to his groin and shouted,
“Cut . . . it’s been cut . . .”
“Who’s cut? What’s been cut?”
Dustali Khan didn’t answer Dear Uncle’s question but in the same terrified voice repeated, “Cut . . . she wanted to cut it . . . with a knife . . . with a kitchen knife . . . she was going to cut . . .”
“Who cut? Who wanted to cut?”
“Aziz . . . that rotten bitch Aziz . . . my wife . . . that witch of a woman . . . that unnatural bitch of a murderer . . .”
Asadollah Mirza, who had pricked up his ears, came forward, holding back his laughter with some difficulty. “Moment . . . moment . . . wait . . . wait, let me see . . . God forbid, Mrs. Aziz al-Saltaneh didn’t want to cut off your . . .”
“Yes, yes . . . that witch, if I’d jumped a moment later she’d have cut it off.”
Asadollah Mirza burst out with a loud guffaw of laughter and said, “Right from the bottom?”
As everyone laughed Dear Uncle Napoleon suddenly remembered that there were women and children present. He stood up and, stretching out his arms wide on each side and so making a curtain with his cloak between Dustali Khan and the children, he shouted, “Women and children over there!”
Now, in my view, that is a funny and well-handled scene in dialogue. In a few short paragraphs, even the casual reader glimpses the various characters: feckless Dustali Khan, imperious Uncle Napoleon, naive Mash Qasem, sophisticated Asadollah Mirza and the shrewish wife, Aziz al-Saltaneh. The author keeps this up throughout the novel, scene after scene, thickening the plot as he goes along. However, about 3/4 of the way in, I find that the scenes are starting to be more repetitive, versus enlightening or deepening, and therefore less engaging.
There are also some cultural differences that affect my reading; for example, Dustali Khan is the apparent father of his stepdaughter’s future child, a fact that is treated satirically in the novel and which doesn’t seem terribly funny to me, in any shape or form. I hope to write more about this aspect, but I do want to finish the novel and also think through specifics. So, onward!