The Blind Owl – Sadegh Hedayat (translated by Naveed Noori)


Early in Mathias Énard’s wonderful novel “Compass” the protagonist Franz, on a lonely night of despair, takes the thesis by his love Sarah and reads:

“There are certain wounds in life that, like leprosy, eat away at the soul in solitude and diminish it,” writes the Iranian Sadegh Hedayat at the beginning of his novel The Blind Owl: the little man with round glasses knew this better than anyone. It was one of those wounds that led him to turn the gas on high in his apartment on the rue Championnet in Paris, one evening of great solitude, an April evening, very far from Iran, very far, with as his only company a few poems by Khayyam and a sombre bottle of cognac, perhaps, or a lump of opium, or perhaps nothing, nothing at all, aside from the texts he still kept, which he carried off with him into the great gas void. (Pg 14)

Continuing with references to Proust and Kafka and reflecting upon Hedayat’s suicide the reading of Sarah’s prologue concludes:

By opening this article with Hedayat and his Blind Owl, we propose to explore this crevice, to look inside the cleft, to enter the drunkenness of those men and women who have wavered too much in alterity; we are going to take the little man by the hand to go down and observe the gnawing wounds, the drugs, the elsewheres, and explore this between-space, this bardo, this barzakh, the world between worlds into which artists and travellers fall. (p16)

The 75th Anniversary edition of Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl”, translated by Naveed Norri, has an extensive introduction by the translator, with a detailed explanation of the various texts available, the reasoning for using the “Bombay Edition” and a reference to the opening line across three translators:

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

Bashiri: “In life there are certain sores that, like a canker, gnaw at the soul in solitude and diminish it.”

Noori: “In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude –“

We now have a different version presented by Énard (I assume from a French translation of Hedayat’s Persian) and translated by Charlotte Mendell.

“The Blind Owl” opens with a frontispiece “The printing and sale (of this work) in Iran is forbidden” which has apparently resulted in a black market for Hedayat’s book and whilst bleak, dark and extreme it is not as confrontational as recent works from the region, for example “The Iraqi Christ” by Hassan Blasim.

A book narrated, in two parts, by an opium smoking painter of pencases, the slow spiralling thoughts of a man wracked with drugs, is a measured destructive piece. Peppered with dashes, as our narrator pauses, switches thoughts, it is reminiscent of a work by Edgar Allen Poe or Jorge Luis Borges. The story itself is quite simple, our reclusive narrator writes the tale we are reading, for his own shadow, a story where he sees, through a non-existent hole in his wall, “a Hindu yogi, wearing a cloak with a turban wrapped around his head, squatting underneath a cypress tree, who, with an astonished look, placed the index finger of his left hand to his lips – In front of him a damsel in a long black dress, bent over was offering him a morning glory flower – for between them there was a small stream” –  the same  image he paints on his pen case covers. The “damsel in a long black dress” then becomes the focus of our narrator’s tale, his adoration of her, and her grizzly end. The second half of the work is the same narrator writing his story – yes spiralling, labyrinthine, Borges…

From where must I begin? For all the thoughts that are presently boiling in my head are from this moment, they are without hour, minute or history – an incident from yesterday may be older and less moving than an incident from a thousand years ago.

The correlation between Énard’s novel and the themes in Hedayat’s are obvious, to readers of both novels. This work using association and metaphor that spirals out of control as you delve deeper, lost in the labyrinth of Hedayat’s subconscious. Through repetition and distortion, you cannot hope to see the truth…

He got up. I went toward the house. I went into my room and, with much effort, brought the dead’s suitcase to the edge of the door. In front of my door I saw an old and dilapidated hearse that had hitched to it two black horses, emaciated like cadavers. The hunched-over old man was sitting up on the seat and had a long whip in hand, but he never turned to look in my direction – With much effort I placed the suitcase in the carriage, which had a special space for a coffin inside of it. I got in and lay down in the coffin’s space and rested my head on its ledge so I could look at the scenery – Then I slid the suitcase on my chest and held it tightly with my two hands.
The whip sounded in the air. The horses, taking long and soft leaps, started moving with labored breaths. In the rainy weather their misty breaths looked like pipes of smoke coming out of their nostrils – their slender hooves, like fingers of a thief that had been cut off and dipped into boiling oil according to law, slowly rose up and silently touched the ground – the sound of the bells tied around their necks played a peculiar song in the damp air – a type of indescribably and reasonless comfort enveloped me from head to toe, such that the water in my stomach did not stir with the movement of the carriage – I only felt the weight of the suitcase on my chest. –

Hedayat’s long and meandering sentences, the narrator’s thoughts, marked by dashes, dwell in the darkness or the shadows. The character development is almost non existent, it is simply a tale, a revelation of our narrator, all others are in relation to him, although the story contains butchers, peddlers, “the whore” (his wife), his nanny, they are all fragments of the narcissist narrator’s mind,…

I smoked all the opium I had left so that this strange opiate could scatter all the problems and veils that were covering my eyes, all these massing, grey and distant memories – The state of being that I was desirous of arrived and it exceeded my expectation: – Slowly my thoughts became exacting, grand and magical, I entered into a state of half sleep and half unconsciousness.

Readers of Énard’s “Comapss” will note the correlation here, and I am grateful to the French writer for referencing this book in his latest, much awarded, novel, without such I would never have entered the dark world of Hedayat’s mind.

If you are after a simple narrative tale to celebrate I suggest you look elsewhere, if you are looking for a dark, bleak fable from the “East”, one filled with opiate driven dreams and metaphorical, historical references to Iran, then this is a work you will truly appreciate. Although only 78 pages it is not a quick read, if you want to fall under Hedayat’s spell and personally I read it twice to appreciate all the nuances, pauses and references.

For some reason, literature associated with suicide seems to appear quite frequently in my reading, with Edouard Levé, Osamu Dazai, Qui Miaojin, Stig Sæterbakken just a few writers, who took their own lives, that spring to mind. The theme continues with the tortured thoughts of Sadegh Hedayat, a writer worth visiting, especially for those who have appreciated Énard’s latest novel. I do have Simon Critchley’s “Notes on Suicide” on my shelves, maybe it is time to read an essay on the subject.

Rituals of Restlessness – Yaghoub Yadali (translated by Sara Khalili)

Depending upon your internet enquiry, you will either believe that Yaghoub Yadali is “widely published in Iran” (City of Asylum, where he was a writer-in-residence 2013-2015 or University of Iowa, where he was resident in 2012) or “banned from publication and reprint” (Words Without Borders). What is unquestioned is his novel “Rituals of Restlessness” (translated by Sara Khalili) receiving the 2004 Golshiri Foundation Award and being named one of the top ten best novels of the decade by the Press Critics Award in Iran. In 2007 Yaghoub Yadali was sentenced to one year in prison for having depicted an adulterous love affair in the novel. As you can see by his writer-in-residence placements above, he has subsequently moved to the USA and recently the controversial “Rituals of Restlessness” was released by Phoneme Media.
Phoneme Media, a not-for-profit publisher, have partnered with the Pittsburgh not-for-profit City of Asylum to publish a series of works, “Rituals of Restlessness” is the first. City of Asylum, in their own words, “creates a thriving community for writers, readers, and neighbors. We provide sanctuary to endangered literary writers, so that they can continue to write and their voices are not silenced. We offer a broad range of literary programs in a variety of community settings to encourage cross-cultural exchange.”
As the back cover of this novel explains, the plot is simple, Kamran is planning a car accident, he is to use an Afghan illegal immigrant as his body double, and disappear from his wife, his job, his tedious existence.
There was a banner: “Felicitations to our fellow countrymen on this pride-inspiring week of holy defense.” Every year there was a one-week celebration of the war with Iraq, during which kiss-asses, vying for promotions and more overtime pay, would wear their ill-fitting Basiji army uniforms and address each other as “brother” to demonstrate their enduring revolutionary spirit and their readiness for battle should America decide to attack Iran. Right! A firecracker would have them crawling into a hole, much less an attack by America
Blending flashback and present time narration, the tension of executing his plan and the reasons why Kamran is doing such slowly take shape. The smattering of information about the traditional Iranian upbringings of our protagonist (and his wife, and lover) is not too overbearing, you do not feel as though this is a condemnation of a culture, in fact in feels more like a celebration, a new world where tradition and modern values can co-exist.
Three days had passed from their wedding night, which both their mothers had insisted should be arranged based on tradition: The husband and wife would go to the bridal chamber, and Fariba’s mother and the women in her family would wait behind the door for them to have sex and for the blood of virginity to stain the white cloth that had been spread on the bed. The bloodstained fabric would be proof of the bride’s purity, and her mother would show it to everyone.
Kamran had said, “I would rather die than submit to such a ludicrous ceremony.” He had told Fariba, “this ritual belongs to idiots. Isn’t it stupid for you and I to be making love in a room while a bunch of women lurk behind the door, cracking watermelon seeds and giggling until morning, just so they can see proof of the conquest on a piece of cloth?”
As our novel unfolds we become a witness to a man’s descent into depression, self-awareness of a life without meaning and the restless rituals of people who have nothing else to achieve other than east, sleep and fill in the endless hours.
He stayed under the shower for a long time and played with the water drops. He slowly turned the knob until the water became very cold. He held his head under it and let it cascade over his ears. It was just like the times when he would submerge his head in the swimming pool and, except for a monotonous, continuous whirr, all other sounds would suddenly stop. It was then that he often wished he could inhale all the air in the world, so that he could stay underwater, naked and calm, listening to that soothing hum…not forever – he knew he bored easily – but long enough that he did not tire of it.
Kamaran’s personal decay is exaggerated by his actions, he collects dead cockroaches to feed to the ants in his apartment.
He hollered and roared as much as he could. There was no sound that he did not make, yelling at the top of his lungs. His vocal cords felt like they were about to tear. It made little difference whether Esteghlal was on the offensive or Persepolis; just the fact that the crowd rose to its feet and shouted at will, cursed at the referee, and hurled all sorts of usual and unusual things at the players was enough for him to lose himself among them, to howl as loudly as he could, and to revel in the fact that he was not even a tiny fraction of that multitude.
Other than satisfying a sense of nostalgia, the only reason he was at the stadium, watching the boring and idiotic match between two of the country’s most popular soccer teams, was so that he could transform into an insignificant speck among a raucous crowd of more than a hundred thousand and should on and on without anyone complaining.
There are symbolic moments throughout, for example Kamran walks under various banners, and a significant amount of the narration takes place in the mountains, a region bordering on Iraq.
As Kamran descends further into a black hole, his nihilistic tendencies come to the fore, at times I was reminded of Dostoyevsky, which work I am not too sure…(I know, a big call but the recollection was there – maybe I’m descending into madness too!!!)
…the absurd monotony that like an octopus was slithering closer and casting a horrible shadow over the seemingly endless minutes and hours.
I was also reminded (only slightly) of Sayed Kashua’s “Exposure (translated by Mitch Ginsburg) an Israeli work, longlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, however this is a lot stronger piece, being a lot more plausible, and more readable in its address of the internal struggle. The similarities may have bubbled up due to the Middle Eastern setting and the “action” taking place in dark secluded apartment blocks?!? This is an intriguing work from Iran, and although the nation has a rich literary history it is a country that I haven’t delved too much into and one that doesn’t feature often in world literature discussions or book awards. As Nima Malek Mohamadi points out in an article at the British Council website last year;
Iranian writers have longed for a larger, global audience beyond the limitations of the language, ever since Sadegh Hedayat wrote two of his short stories in French. Some big waves of migration out of Iran during the last thirty years, and closer contact with cultural circles abroad, have resulted in Iranian modern literature – and its translation into European languages – gaining more attention. However, geopolitical motives also have a role to play. This tendency is sometimes evident in the book titles themselves, such as Literature from the ‘Axis of Evil’ – a translation of poems and stories by Iranian, Iraqi, and North Korean writers, published in 2007.

A readable, enjoyable and enlightening debut in the City of Asylum series and a very worthwhile project to support, one I hope continues for many years to come.

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