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We had it all: walls and walls of the apartment I grew up in in suburban Los Angeles were lined with books, Persian and English. I was barely double-digits when I first heard the title Buf-i Kur. When I inquired about it my father said it was a masterpiece of Persian literature, written before he was born.
What was it about? I asked. Is it about a blind owl? Do we have it? Every few years the book would inevitably come up in conversation and I would prod, but still nothing but that same silence. My teenage years could be characterized by obsessions with all sorts of things I knew nothing about, and The Blind Owl was no exception. I was determined to get my hands on our copy.
My father, with a particularly oily smile: We have no copy. I was shocked: Why? What is the deal with this book? Have you read it? My father: Of course. Everyone in Iran has read it. And, well, if you must know, the author also committed suicide. Back then I was already knee-deep in Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Hemingway, and, hell, Kurt Cobain had just ended his life—suicide had a behemothic allure to me.
This made me want it all the more. But I was not going to get it, not for a while. And then the moment I went to college and forgot all about it, suddenly one summer break when I was home, my father brought me a copy, an English translation.
He seemed embarrassed. Eyes downcast, fidgeting, silence. More silence. It was finally mine. For a few days I rejoiced and just stared at it on my shelf, as if it were some magical object that was best observed but barely handled.
And it sat there for years. Having possession of it finally made it less desirable; knowing at any moment I could go there made it less illicit. That was my first phase. It was no doubt the superstition about suicide. I never took it with me to college, never took it anywhere.
Periodically I would think about it and think about approaching it, but again, like something that had the power to kill or at least curse me, I stayed away. It took beginning my own novel to go there. The long form, it has always seemed to me, has the power to really shelter you, keep you covered and protected for several years, and so in that era, for the first time in my life, I experienced no fear.
But that was only part of it. The other part was simply the content. It was the most disturbing thing I had read and I had read many disturbing things by then; I was deeply attracted to them, in fact.
But this made me feel sick for days. I thought about announcing anemically at dinner that after fifteen years of wondering, I finally knew. I had read it. I never told anyone I had read it. I started to feel spiritless, to put it euphemistically, once the novel was done. Several brushes with bad luck had collided to create a most calcified dolor, so potent that nothing scared me, not depression, not death, nothing.
Perhaps I never had a star. The most dismal side of me could think of no other author, no other work, to jinx myself with. And then the part of me that believed I would get over this wanted everyone to know about this breathtaking novel that had, over many personal peaks and valleys, grown to mean the world to me.
And here I am again, still wishing that on everyone who has yet to touch these pages. In reading it again and again over the years, I have become more and more immune to its horror and more and more ensorcelled by its masterfulness.
It is, first of all, a novel that demands countless readings; it demands that you become a student of it. As I became a novelist in my own right, I grew less afraid of its powers and more attuned to its mechanics, but I never stopped feeling wholly humbled by its profoundly radical aesthetics.
And Sadegh Hedayat, who I learned more and more about, became one of my most cherished literary icons. Which is why I was ecstatic and overwhelmed to introduce Western audiences to the new edition of D. I thought of the judgment of every Iranian I knew who, without a blink of an eye, would swear ultimate allegiance to The Blind Owl. It is that type of national treasure that elicits the most indeed-blind unconditional ardor. It is not an easy read and yet, against all odds, it is the most renowned literary work of twentieth-century Iran, unreadable to the masses, one would assume, with its opaque symbolism, corkscrewed coding, warped psychological landscape, and otherworldly thematics.
Perhaps the very prose, coupled with its fabled notoriety, has made it an essential literary hand-me-down in Iran. And that, of course, renders this frightening tale all the more frightening.
There is the perpetual haze of opium which, based on whatever account you subscribe to, Hedayat was an occasional dabbler or a hopeless addict. He carried an inconsolable loneliness in walking through the world as well as in the artistic rendering of it. This was how Iran turned Western and fast, a place where Islamic traditionalism and Western modernization were at a tug-of-war.
This era of cultural crossroads heralded many decades of such awkward seesawing of old and new, tradition and progress, crises of identity of which Iran still, clearly, is deeply embroiled. For Hedayat, neither the clergy nor the monarchy held the answers, neither the common man nor the elite intelligentsia; he was at once at odds with not just his country, as many have been quick to conclude, but his era.
After serialization in the journal Iran in , the history of The Blind Owl has been largely a hide and seek with authority. It was published again in but censored, banned from the 18th Tehran International Book Fair in , and publication rights were withdrawn as a part of a sweeping purge. Was it simply the gore that made it unacceptable to the establishment? I think it was its intertwining of cultural dualities, which was quintessentially more Hedayat than any other aspect of the work.
Novelistic prose did not really exist in Persian before the twentieth century, and whereas the early Iranian novels were historical novels written by academics and intellectuals, this was something altogether different from even its different status as a novel.
Hedayat was, after all, pretty much bicultural, and The Blind Owl, as many have declared, is in certain ways a Western novel following and even making indentations in the European tradition. Hedayat was in many ways partially French: he attended a French school, the St.
And this is arguably the Iranian condition or at least its modern condition, that the left and right of Iran always feared to face—a nation of constant conquest, perpetual displacement, and exile, a country of homeland seekers with a destination only in their ancient past. Hedayat could not find solace in Tehran society and yet in Paris he could not find peace either. He was the Iranian nationalist who, fed up with the corruptions of church and state alike, was perpetually looking westward; he was also the foreigner in Europe, whose daily life was endless visa applications and intense economic hardship, whose eyes were cast to the comforts of his mother country where he was of the aristocracy.
And like these contradictions, so existed The Blind Owl, whose biggest challenge, one could assume, was that of audience—many Western literary references were lost on Iranian audiences and many Iranian folkloric descriptions were alien to Western readers, and yet the book held its place among both readerships.
One of the aspects of The Blind Owl that kept it alive for me while working on my own novel—a truly hyphenate work in that it is equally Iranian and American—was that it felt like our first truly hyphenate work, Hedayat embodying the first true Iranian immigrant, a both reluctant and ecstatic pioneer of the West. Part of the agreement in setting on the journey of a truly hybridized work is accepting its polarities. With The Blind Owl, we are taught to read a novel all over again—in its pages there exists a collection of codes, variants, repetitions, cycles.
We are left alone, very alone, to read unlike we have ever read before. We have on one hand a Gothic romance narrative and on the other hand an expressionist whodunit allegory, both equally problematized by the innovative structure: a novel in two novellas, its twin narrative sections playing for and against each other. In Part I, our narrator is a painter whose vocation is to paint a single picture on pen cases.
In Part II, there is no mention of him being an artist and instead he is the confessor, a writer telling his story to, we can assume, save whatever is left of his sanity. In other words, the first part is the present in the form of a dream, while the second is the past in the form of a confession—and already, the algorithm is a precarious one, no doubt. But the dualities continue.
The artist of the first part, Beard notes, is immersed in a platonic love state, given the task of representing his muse, the beautiful young woman who, like an angel, appears at his door only to die in his bed. But what is ingenious about this simple set-up is all the multiples and recyclings and variations on not just a few finite themes but a few finite images. Beard notes the novel features the same actors playing different characters over and over.
It requires, at its very least, the closest of multiple readings and, at its very most, conscientious code-breaking dissection. It inspired me to write to him and ask how he came about discovering this book. It was apparently while he was in Peace Corps training in Iran. I had recently picked it up in the reading room and figured it might be a good companion. It was a perfect companion. Alone, late at night in an unfamiliar place I felt in tune with it.
It was a seductive book even before I understood it. The memory of it lingered after we went to our sites I was teaching high school in Rafsanjan, then a small town.
In Peace Corps pedagogy you speak before you can read, and as I was slowly becoming literate in Persian, it was one of my textbooks. I began to read it slowly, with a dictionary at hand, and it became one more teacher. I have no doubt that melancholy ingrained in his character led to his suicide, but I also believe that there is an exuberance in his writing that counteracts it.
The expression of melancholy is not the same thing as melancholy. This, I think, is the key to appreciating the nightmare-scape of The Blind Owl, once you piece its puzzles, catch on to its games, and read by its rules.
We can see in this book, as well as in all his writing, not what might be implicated in his untimely death, but what prevented it for so long.
Delirium, desire and despair: The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat
The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat. Our Assessment: A- : fascinating but opaque. Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review 's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole.
The Blind Owl
Written in Persian , it tells the story of an unnamed pen case painter, the narrator, who sees in his macabre, feverish nightmares that "the presence of death annihilates all that is imaginary. We are the offspring of death and death delivers us from the tantalizing, fraudulent attractions of life; it is death that beckons us from the depths of life. If at times we come to a halt, we do so to hear the call of death Throughout our lives, the finger of death points at us. His confessions do not follow a linear progression of events and often repeat and layer themselves thematically, thus lending to the open-ended nature of interpretation of the story. The Blind Owl was written during the oppressive latter years of Reza Shah 's rule — It was originally published in a limited edition in Bombay , during Hedayat's two-year-long stay there in , stamped with "Not for sale or publication in Iran.
The Blind Owl and Other Stories
The Blind Owl is a not an easy book to read. Consumed with death, decay, sexual obsession and frustration. After finishing the last page it sits heavy in the gut. And then, as you start to unwind the experience, it takes on an eerie, impressive, surreal quality—no less dark—but unlikely to easily slip from the imagination once wedged there. A classic of twentieth century Iranian literature, The Blind Owl was composed during the latter years of the oppressive reign of Reza Shah and first published in in Bombay where the author, writer and intellectual Sadegh Hedayat was studying.