The Blind Owl – Sadeq Hedayat

The Blind Owl - Sadeq Hedayat, coverI can’t really claim any great knowledge of Iranian or Persian literature. After reading a book (this, if you’re interested) on Iranian history and culture my interest was piqued sufficiently to give some a go.

Sadeq Hedayat  – who lived from 1903 until his suicide in 1951 – is apparently considered to be Iran’s foremost modern writers of fiction. Unfortunately, this is something that I really have to take on trust being, as I say, that I’m unfamiliar with Hedayat and the tradition in which he wrote. Fortunately, the notes in my Oneworld edition, with some googling, did help to give me understand the traditions, literary and from the wider culture that Hedayat was referring to.

Educated in the Lycée Français in Tehran, he continued his studies in Paris, eventually befriending Satre. During his education, he came to be intrigued by modern European writers (the likes of Kafka and Chekhov) as well as devoting himself to studying, understanding and modernising Persian literature and folklore. This gave, certainly The Blind Owl, anyway, a great deal of interest for me as he created a short but rich and layered novel.

Initially banned in Iran, The Blind Owl follows the nightmarish visions of its narrator. Following this logic, the narrative is hallucinatory, surreal and fractured. The opening line of the novel gives the reader a sense of the tone that can be expected:

“There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.”

Solitary, misanthropic and mad, the narrator is certainly not about to tell a pleasant story. The Blind Owl, non-linear in its construction, sees the narrator with the body of his dead wife. In his madness, it’s not immediately clear to him (or us) how he got into this situation. This section also sees some fine, evocative writing – which could be taken as a comment on how Iranian society dealt with gender relations at the time. Certainly Hedayat was highly critical of the repression that he saw in Iran at the time he was writing. When we are first introduced to the woman, he describes her thusly:

“To me she was a woman and at the same time had within her something that transcended humanity. When I looked at her face I experienced a kind of vertigo which made me forget the faces of all other people. Gazing at her, I began to tremble all over and my knees felt weak. In the depths of her immense eyes I beheld in one moment all the wretchedness of my life. Her eyes were wet and shining like two huge black diamonds suffused with tears. In her eyes, her black eyes, I found the everlasting night of impenetrable darkness for which I had been seeking and I sank into an awful, enchanted blackness of that abyss. It was as though she was drawing some faculty out of my being. The ground rocked beneath my feet and if I had fallen I should have experienced an ineffable delight.”

This passage was interesting for what it contained and what came after it. As it opens, I was given the dizzying sensation of someone truly in love, beholden to the person they are looking at. As it progresses, though, we clearly get an insight into the damaged psyche of the narrator. The imagery and choice of words implies less love and devotion than it does a dangerous obsession and gives further insights to his world view. We learn that, actually, the woman is dead and, as he puts things she “had surrendered her body to me. She had given me her body and her soul.” The darkness of the imagery is continued:

“Her fragile, short-lived spirit, which had no affinity with the world of earthly creatures, had silently departed from under the black, pleated dress, from the body which had tormented it, and had gone wandering in the world of shadows and I felt as though it had taken my spirit with it. But her body was lying there, inanimate and still. Her soft, relaxed muscles, her veins and sinews and bones were awaiting burial, a dainty meal for the worms and rats of the grave. In this threadbare, wretched, cheerless room which itself was like a tomb, in the darkness of the everlasting night which had enveloped me and which had penetrated the very fabric of the walls, I had before me a long, dark, cold, endless night in the company of a corpse, of her corpse. I felt that ever since the world had been the world, so long as I had lived, a corpse, cold, inanimate and still, had been with me in  dark room.”

This continues the dark, deathly imagery. Not particularly comfortable reading but unquestionably effective.

For all that these parts of the novel are serious, it does actually have a strand of humour running through it. Inky-black humour to be sure, but humour nonetheless. His attempts to bury the body and the “trial by cobra” described half-way through the book though in keeping with the tone of the novel, are not, I think, infused with the same seriousness.

I’d recommend reading this novel. It’s grim and – if you’re in the wrong state of mind when reading it – I can imagine that you may find it to be taxing. The repetitive and non-linear structure do mean that there’s no clear beginning, middle and end. Not a lot actually happens in the sense of there being a traditional narrative. It’s a series of events, suffused with a sense of déjà vu throughout.

I would also recommend that you pay attention to the notes and, it may be wise to read up a little on Hedayat, if you aren’t familiar with him. Not understanding the historical, cultural and literary context of the novel certainly won’t damage your understanding of or immersion in the text, but I think that it will certainly enhance your pleasure to get the additional layers of meaning that Hedayet had in his work.

A real triumph.

Available from Amazon

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