Iraj Pezeshkzad, a prominent Iranian writer and satirist who became a cultural figure after his blockbuster novel, “My Uncle Napoleon,” captured the imaginations of generations of Iranians, died on Jan. 12 in Los Angeles. He was 94.
Mr. Pezeshkzad (pronounced pez-ESHK-zaad) died of cardiac arrest in his sleep, according to his son and sole survivor, Bahman Pezeshkzad, an artist who lives in Paris.
The elder Mr. Pezeshkzad had been visiting friends in Los Angeles at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and decided to stay in California to avoid the risk of travel back to Paris, where he had been living since the end of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Despite being in exile for four decades, Mr. Pezeshkzad was one of Iran’s best-selling authors and most prolific satirists. He wrote 17 satirical novels and more than a dozen scholarly books and essays on history and literature.
He was best known for “My Uncle Napoleon” (1970), about an aristocratic family living in Iran in the 1940s as the country was modernizing. The patriarch is an uncle who briefly served in the military but who, with delusions of grandeur, compares himself to Napoleon, making up stories about battles he led with the British Army to liberate Iran and sharing conspiracy theories about the British. His servant and sidekick, Mash Ghasem, feeds these fantasies with laugh-out-loud humor, making him one of the most beloved characters in the book.
After Mr. Pezeshkzad’s death, an outpouring of grief spread on social media, uniting Iranians of many factions and political leanings. Prominent artists, cartoonists, writers and politicians as well as ordinary people praised Mr. Pezeshkzad for holding up a mirror to the nation, inviting it to self-reflect while laughing at itself.
“He wrote the biggest and most influential satire novel in our history; it’s the ‘Don Quixote’ of Persian literature,” Ebrahim Nabavi, a prominent satirical writer who lives in exile in Maryland, said of “My Uncle Napoleon” by phone. “If anyone wants to understand Iranian psychology, culture and politics, they must read his book.”
In an interview with BBC Persian in 2013, Mr. Pezeshkzad tearfully said that he dreamed of returning to Iran. But, he added, he did not want to return if the authorities would harass him for his writing or accuse him of insulting the ayatollahs. “I have never insulted anyone in my life,” he said.
He adorned the walls of his Paris apartment with verses from Persian poetry filled with longing for Iran, and he often mused about the challenges of writing about a society and its people from afar.
“I force myself to write something here,” Mr. Pezeshkzad said in the interview, adding, “If I had been in Iran, I would have written much more.”
“My Uncle Napoleon,” which has been translated into more than a dozen languages, remains a best seller in Iran more than 50 years after its publication. But Mr. Pezeshkzad told BBC Persian that he had received very little in royalties from sales of the book because there were no copyright laws in Iran.
A television series based on the novel was one of the most watched Iranian television productions ever, even though it aired just once before the revolution. It has been circulating in bootleg form ever since.
Some catchphrases from the book have become idioms in the Persian language, and the characters are commonly referenced in Iran to describe personality types. Sexual interactions are referred to as “going to San Francisco,” for example, and blaming others for one’s woes is often described as “It’s the work of the British.” If a person weaves conspiracy theories, he or she is ridiculed as a “Dayee Jan Napoleon,” the Persian title of the book.
Critics have said “My Uncle Napoleon” has endured because its themes and plotlines are timeless. Iranians are still breaking the chains of traditional social class structures as they struggle with modernity. Many Iranians, including government officials, are, like the novel’s title character, prone to self-aggrandizement and susceptible to conspiracy theories about foreign meddling in Iranian affairs by the United States and the United Kingdom as well as, more recently, Russia and China.
But Prof. Abbas Milani, a historian and the director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, said the book overshadowed Mr. Pezeshkzad’s more serious writing, including his scholarly research on literature by the Persian poets Hafez and Saadi. Mr. Pezeshkzad, he said, wished that his literary and nonfiction work would get equal attention. It never did.
When Stanford University awarded Mr. Pezeshkzad its Bita Prize for Persian Arts in 2014, about 1,200 people attended the ceremony, the most for any Iran-related event at the school.
Iraj Pezeshkzad was born on Jan. 29, 1927, in Tehran to Hassan Pezeshkzad, a physician, and Gohar Fekri Ershad, an aristocrat from the Qajar dynasty.
Mr. Pezeshkzad had one sister and three half brothers, and from age 9 lived in a complex surrounded by a 30,000-square-foot leafy garden. Some of his extended family also lived in the complex.
As a child he was a keen observer of his surroundings and those who populated them and later found inspiration in them as a writer. In an essay about his childhood, for example, he recalled the delusional uncle who held court with children, asking them to pay respect by kissing his hands.
After graduating from high school in Iran, Mr. Pezeshkzad earned a law degree from Université de Dijon (now the University of Burgundy) in France. He soon began writing satirical short stories for Iranian publications and translating books by French writers like Voltaire and Molière into Persian. Returning to Iran, he married Mahin Chaybani. She died in 1979.
In Iran he was a judge for five years and then worked for the foreign ministry, serving as head of its cultural division until he was purged from the job after the revolution. All along he wrote a popular satirical column for a literary magazine and turned out plays, articles, research papers and books.
The revolution that toppled the monarchy upended his life and career. In his last article for the newspaper Kayhan, published 11 days after the end of the revolution, he drew parallels to the French Revolution and warned of its bloody aftermath. Without a job or prospects of getting published — “My Uncle Napoleon” was banned until the late 1990s — he left for France.
In Paris, Mr. Pezeshkzad briefly ventured into politics as a writer and editor. He worked with the deposed Iranian prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar, who had formed the National Resistance Movement of Iran. (Mr. Bakhtiar was assassinated by agents of the Iranian regime in 1991.)
For the rest of his life Mr. Pezeshkzad devoted his time to writing and delivering occasional lectures.
Even then, his son said in an interview, “he was missing Iran.”
“Of course, he was deeply, desperately in love with his country,” he added.
Mr. Pezeshkzad was frequently sought out by his fans, many of them young writers of satire and journalists in Iran who wrote to him asking for advice and requesting interviews. When the satire magazine Chelcheragh scored an interview with him and published a cartoonlike drawing of him on its cover in 2020, the issue sold out instantly.