When I read that this book had been made into a TV series, I should have anticipated what it would be like: it is a hologram. Every part of it contains the image of the whole; the drama runs in place, the characters are inalterable (and apart from the nameless narrator and his beloved cousin, who have no personalities at all, are a broadly ‘unsympathetic’ bunch), and the elements of the comedy are always the same. Fortunately, these are all entirely adequate to the task of keeping me entertained for five hundred pages.
To be honest, I’m quite surprised I enjoyed it so much as I don’t think I would have read this if I had been told it was a farce relying for most of its laughs on innuendo and bodily functions, especially of the penis. Clearly, Pezeshkzad has the genius of imbuing his comedy with sparkling life. The characteristic exaggerations and romance of Iranian speech, re-exaggerated by the author, are a treat non-Iranians can enjoy as the countless shockingly disingenuous dramatic oaths on the souls and deaths of loved ones and holy figures sometimes becomes a joke in itself.
Had enough? OK, off you go, thanks for reading so far = )
Attempted Feminist Reading of Daei Jan Napoleon*
There is one female character who speaks at any length: Aziz al-Saltaneh, whose terrifying volatility is early on highlighted by her attempt to cut off her cheating husband’s penis. In addition, Farrokh Laqa, an unpleasant busybody permanently dressing in black and going to funerals, has a few lines, and the mother of cadet officer Ghiasabadi, whose unattractive appearance is her main attribute, speaks a little. For comparison, there are five main male characters who speak about as much as or more than Aziz al-Saltaneh, and many more minor ones who speak much more than any other woman
Three women exist to be sexually attractive and potentially available to seduce or be seduced; they are mostly discussed in their absence. Layli, the narrator’s beloved, is spared ever being physically described, but she barely speaks. The narrator’s mother and young sister, and the wives of ‘uncle colonel’ and Daie Jan himself barely exist. I don’t think there is a single scene in which two women speak to each other.
Arguably the most complete, sympathetic female character is Qamar, the teenage daughter of Aziz al-Saltaneh, described in near-enough-author-voice as ‘simple’ (I do not know what this is translated from) and by unsympathetic characters as ‘not all there’ ‘not right in the head’ and ‘crazy’. The latter is particularly inaccurate as Qamar seems to be very sane: honest, consistent and cheerful except when she is threatened with an abortion against her will. This is only one of the ways in which she is abused. She is, apparently, raped by a family member, and coerced (under the threat of a dangerous abortion) into marrying an older man. Uncle Asadollah, perhaps the most sympathetic character overall and thus closely identified with the author, obviously feels for her and treats her kindly. She is described as attractively ‘chubby’ (as are other attractive women – I suppose it’s at least refreshing not to have a less unhealthy standard of sexual suitability) and her body is subjected to various narrative commodifications, but she does emerge as a person with a will. I like her a lot, and I wish we heard more from her.
The strategy of having the story told from the perspective of a lovesick teenager, even if his endless eavesdropping is an utterly transparent device, allows a clear eyed and ‘innocent’ (though certainly not unbiased) perspective, a thin veil for straight author voice.
Further distancing through other characters allows Pezeshkzad to poke fun at the (mainly) classism racism and patriarchal attitudes of others. However, to some extent these are conferred in by the author. Extreme male jealousy and references to wife-murder are satirised, and I sense a strong sense of injustice at the cruel prohibition against men displaying emotion: a crying boy being subjected to ‘this one’s a girl, get the barber and cut his willy off’ could hardly be more appalling. On the other hand, in addition to the problems with female characters, the text raises scant objection to the abuse of Qamar. Uncle Asadollah’s view that sex is the best thing in life and in particular that sex with a man solves all a woman’s problems is distanced from the author by the narrator’s firmly chaste and chivalrous attitude to his love object: ‘I’m in love with her Uncle Asadollah; dirty thoughts like that have never entered my head’.
To an extent, racism against Indian people is sent up – Daei Jan* is so racist he can hardly bear to speak to an Indian, while Uncle Asadollah, perhaps the most sympathetic character overall and thus closely identified with the author, shows no sign of being so, and enthusiastically befriends one whose wife takes his fancy. However, Asadollah describes an Arab in a very unpleasant stereotypical way.
The narrator’s father is a victim of Daei Jan* and his circle’s extreme classism, and his revenge involves constantly inviting people of objectionable class status into Daie Jan’s house and presence whenever he can. Asadollah directly criticises Daie Jan*’s self-importance as both unreasonable and disingenuous. However, he himself is of ‘noble’ origins and his virtue consists in wearing this status lightly and gracefully and behaving in the Iranian tradition of hospitality, conviviality, sympathy and helpfulness to all. Stereotypes of both upper and lower class people are embodied and mined for comedy.
The TV Series
I have a very little Farsi, but having read the book I found I could watch the series without subtitles, follow the action and enjoy it, and get more out of my reading. Indeed, I watched two hours of it while I was doing the ironing! This is surely testament to really brilliant acting and adaptation, and the inevitable humanisation of characters who have only a minimal embodiment in the novel. By watching, you can better appreciate Mash Qasem’s funny habits of speech and the imposing presence of Daei Jan*. Watching gives a sense of place that the novel spends little time creating. The women are dressed in a relaxed style, in colourful dresses, and for most veils are only worn for religious observance.
I’m not really qualified to comment as I can barely read Farsi. However, Dick Davis’ translation is so natural and light-footed that I would have completely forgotten the book was not written in English if I had not occasionally mentally un-translated words and phrases to feel them in Farsi, which was an additional pleasure. Comedy must be very difficult to render in another language, but there is never a hint of strain. Davis’ approach to the art of translation is discussed a little in this article in relation to classic poetry.
*I know it is very obnoxious of me to untranslate the title of the novel and the name of its main character, but Daei Jan (dear maternal uncle) sounds so much more natural than Dear Uncle, which makes me feel I’m writing a letter.