It's not every month that a masterpiece of contemporary world fiction becomes available to readers of English. This July, though, readers get a rare treat with the publication of "My Uncle Napoleon" (Mage Publishers. 516 pages, $30), a tale of family life in Iran in the 1930s written by Oral Pezeshkza and translated from the original Persian by Dick Davis.
"My Uncle Napoleon" is a family saga, assembling types whose appeal lies in their familiarity - the naive young lovers, cagey servant, choleric deceived wife - touched with just enough individuality to make them memorable.
The story, first published in the pre-Islamic Revolution days of the 1970s, was made into a popular TV miniseries. It is so surely told, so funny, true, and ultimately heart-rending, it's absolutely clear why "My Uncle Napoleon" is loved in its homeland.
For an American reader, there is just enough exoticism to demand a dinner or two in a suitably foreign restaurant. The one off note is the title character's fierce anti-English political convictions.
The crusty paterfamilias who reveres England's great military adversary is mockingly called "Napoleon" after his idol; troublingly his anti-British sentiment tales the form of looking on Adolf Hitler as a spiritual ally. In a helpful preface, translator Davis traces the roots of Persian resentment of the English and it's worth making the leap to accept a truly alien perspective -- especially since the unnamed narrator, the book's protagonist, clearly doesn't share his uncle's opinion of Hitler.
Carolyn Haines' "Touched" (Dutton, 384 pages, $24) is a woman's novel detailing a bad marriage, a saving female friendship, and an ultimate survivor in the person of Mattie Mills. "Touched" aims to be a lyrical examination of the psyches in a small Southern town, but it is not ambitious enough to rank as literary fiction - more of a page turner. It will appeal to readers who enjoy identifying with a woman assessing her past as she comes to terms with her life and choices.
Set in the 1920s, it's imbued with a proto-feminist Nineties sensibility, though finally Mattie, a gentle, soft-edged, vulnerable creature, acts out of character in striking back at her abusive husband.
"Hope's Cadillac" (Norton, 334 pages, $25) by Patricia Page. is another thoughtful woman's journey to self-discovery. Its literary aspirations are clear and it is smoothly, elegantly written. En joyable again for those who will identify with the protagonist, a cast-off wife who gains a boat-like Caddy even as she loses custody of her children.
"Hope's Cadillac" lacks the aggressive edge that would confirm it as important. It's aimed to amuse those nostalgic for the 1960s - complete with draft marches, be-ins, tie-dyes, communes and, of course, free love. It adds up to a trip down memory lane, in which the women are right and the men are helpless.
Representing the category of crime fiction, Richard Parrish's "Abandoned Heart" (Dutton. 368 pages, $24) is written for people who were glued to the O.J. Simpson case and aren't yet ready to put away its core issues; criminals' rights vs. victims' rights, a legal system nearly paralyzed by bureaucratic procedures and unrepresentative juries.
Stylistically rocky, it nevertheless hammers home each and every inequity. Injustices are heaped upon its nearly perfect heroine, beautiful philanthropic, piously Catholic Kate O'Dwyer. But every time you try to close the book in irritation - "This couldn't happen. This is ridiculously exaggerated and contrived!" you open it again to see the next thing that happens to Kate. Balanced with strong male and female characters, bolstered by the classic crime-novel belief that principles will out, "Abandoned Heart" cuts through gender lines and, surprisingly, literary prejudices too.
Sheri S. Tepper's "Gibbon's Decline and Fall" (Bantam, 416 pages, $23) is wild, witty and adventurous. Its genre is officially rTC science fiction and by the end the story it truly crosses into the speculative and fantastic. But a lot of it could be called semi sci-fi; set in the year 2000, much of the book is but a slight extension and exaggeration of where we are now. It explores an America where the establishment, a patriarchal hierarchy solidly entrenched in conservative politics and Catholic and Islamic fundamentalism, has virtually declared war on women, who themselves are just beginning to grasp that the problem is serious.
If "Gibbon's Decline and Fall" is feminist, it's also that rare quality - a work that is comically, sometimes hilariously, feminist. Among other things, a cabal of old ladies systemically disrupts fashion shows, demoralizes fashion editors and lectures models to fatten up. Vicarious revenge for us all.
The book's apocalyptic elements will remind fans of Stephen King's "The Stand." A romp with surprising twists and notions, "Gibbon's Decline and Fall" is a speculative classic from a wanton woman's point of view.
Anita Finkel, development editor at Oxford University Press, has worked for Ballet News, Charles Scribner's Sons and Collier's Encyclopedia.
Pub Date: 7/21/96