The Ayatollah Embraces My Uncle Napoleon

Napoleon's Flag in Exile, Flown at Elba, Allowed by the British to Escape?

Oppressive theocrats tend to be slow on the uptake, but when they get it, they get it.

Witness this latest development with regards to Iran:

Foreign influences are not to blame for Iran's post-election violence, the nation's supreme leader has said, according to state-run media.

"I don't accuse the leaders of the recent incidents of being affiliated with foreign countries, including the United States and Britain, since the issue has not been proven for me," Ayatollah Khamenei told a group of university students on Wednesday, Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

"But there is no doubt that the events were planned, no matter whether their leaders knew it or not."

Iranian officials, including hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have claimed that nations such as the United States and Britain have meddled in Iranian affairs since elections in June, without offering proof. Ahmadinejad has has warned of repercussions over the alleged meddling.

Gholam-Hosein Mohseni Ejei, Iran's intelligence minister, on Sunday blamed Western powers for stirring up protests. The British Embassy in Tehran "played a heavy role in the recent disturbances," he said, adding that the United States led the effort.

The Ayatollah is obviously aware of the great satire of Iranian modern politics, My Uncle Napoleon, while Ejei and Ahmadinejad still inhabit the witlessness of reactionary delusion. Someone needs to get the Iranian ministers on the same sheet of music.

My Uncle Napoleon should be known to everyone who studies satire and foreign policy because it is a fearless attempt at showing a people that blaming foreigners is a ludicrous dead end. The book is reviewed and explained in great detail here:

My Uncle Napoleon was written in the Seventies, so the memory of that interference was fairly fresh in the author Iraj Pezeshkzad’s mind. However, the action of the book is set in the Forties, and the heroic exploits of ‘my uncle’ belong to a (mythical) past even further back than that. This temporal distance, and the multiple layers of reference, extend into the present of the reader - the book has an uncanny way of telescoping time - so when Uncle Napoleon, terrified that the British are out to get him, decides to take action to protect his own backside, he’s easily persuaded to write a letter to Hitler himself in a vain hope that he might be spirited away to Berlin before the avenging English get their hands on him. It’s as if Uncle Napoleon has been drawn into the same Aryan propaganda and Holocaust denial as his present day equivalent, though his escape to Germany doesn’t happen. Instead, the farcical plot gets diverted by the appearance of a shoeshine man who Uncle Napoleon assumes is a German functionary sent to guard him against British perfidy. And yet the current taste for Nazi ideology in the Middle East exists for very similar reasons. Our enemy’s enemy is our friend, and you have to hand it to Hitler, he was no slouch when it came to acting against the Protocols of Zion.

This principle is also behind My Uncle’s adoration of Napoleon himself, a martyr to the cowardly back-stabbing English. He quotes Napoleon at the slightest opportunity, often absurdly, as when he says that ‘great men are the children of danger’ and manages to imply that he himself is childish. In an undistinguished career as a member of the gendarmerie, My Uncle has done little more than sort out some minor criminals, but in his imagination - stoked by the narrator’s father who seeks revenge on the old fool - these become the famous battles of Kazerun and Mamasani, the details of which he retells and elaborates at every opportunity. He illustrates perfectly the psychology described by Luis Bunuel, whereby the mind, as it sinks into dotage, ceases to distinguish between fantasies and real events. But whereas Bunuel appears to have thought he’d slept with Hollywood starlets, Uncle Napoleon is persuaded that he fought off English generals, humiliated them in the field, and to some immodest extent determined the course of world history. In this fiction he is abetted by Mash Qasem, a servant who has himself become convinced that he was in attendance at all these world historical events, and whose suspicions of the English outdo even his master’s. He is the Corporal Trim of the piece, who does little more than water the plants, but who loves to talk and has a catchphrase that apparently became widely imitated in Iran at the time of the TV series, “Why should I lie? From here to the grave it’s ah…ah,” with which he twice flags up two fingers.

My Uncle Napoleon is wildly popular in Iran, and I don't know what it would equate to in our culture in terms of the catchphrase popularity it has inspired. In politics, and in the culture at large, it looms large there. The only thing that comes to mind for me is the line from Network, which is "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

Our political satire, at least in this country, tends to divide people down partisan lines and doesn't infiltrate the consciousness. People do not quote lines from American political satires so much because our satire is either heavy handed or absurdly light. If you've ever seen Bob Roberts (1992), the Tim Robbins film about a conservative candidate who uses folk music to espouse his right wing values, there's a scene where a very young Jack Black does an incredible job, in just a few short moments, of showing us what a mindless zealot looks like.


It's a great moment, but it hardly pervades the culture the way that it should. The odious toady is just not a candidate for widespread cultural significance.

Anyway, it's nice to note that the Ayatollah has people telling him what Iranians think of all of this Western-bashing. He seems to have decided to rule with a literate fist now.