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.