A funny farce that keeps numerous balls in air until the absolute end, My Uncle Napoleon is recommended reading for anyone interested in 1) what makes for good satire 2) how to illustrate character through dialogue 3) a slice of Iranian history.
I am, much to my regret and fear, Eurocentric in my knowledge of history, which I am attempting to remedy by focusing on Middle Eastern fiction. So, I started the novel with no knowledge of contemporary Iran.
My Uncle Napoleon (written in the 70s) takes place in 1940s Tehran. One of the plotlines involves Dear Uncle Napoleon, a petty tyrannical family patriarch who propagates his fantasies of having fought the British and at the same time fosters paranoia about the British returning to seek revenge against him. He imagines British spies and plots all around him (even a lowly shoeshine boy becomes a British agent in his mind), and both he and his family members use these fantasies to further their own ends, either by propping up Dear Uncle’s ego or deflating it.
What I didn’t know when I began reading the novel was that, under the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, Britain and Russia agreed to divide Iran into spheres of influence. Essentially, these two powers would benefit from Iran’s natural resources while shunting Iranian’s own citizens to the sidelines. When Britain and Russia became allies during WW2, they naturally turned their attention to Iran. Thus, Uncle Napoleon’s fears, while transmuted into paranoiac fantasies, have a basis in reality.
A second plotline follows the love of a 13-year-old boy for his young cousin. The book is carefully structured; the author brings back the love affair whenever family fortunes are to take a turn, and the love affair not only reflects the hopes of the larger Iranian community, but also provides a positive and pure counterbalance to Uncle Napoleon’s negative influence.
To me, the book satirizes a hyper-masculine society, where conquest (military and romantic alike) is a dominant factor. I don’t want to spoil the denouement, but I will say that the two plotlines (and many subplots) are satisfactorily resolved at the end of the book.
While the characters are very clearly drawn (with astonishing use of dialogue), they don’t deepen or develop over the course of the book. (And female characters are marginalized.) I wonder if the lack of character development is not so much a fault of the author but a restriction of the satire genre. I can’t think of many successful and biting satires that have really strong character development; satires tend, by their nature, to deal with the archetype. (Jane Austen does some witty satire on her society, but I would say satire tends to be secondary to Austen, not central.)
I would be interested in others’ thoughts on satire and character development, with any suggestions on works that might do both well.