The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat (Iran)

polirom-bufnita-oarba-4aaebf81dfcb2Title: Bufniţa Oarbă

Author: Sadegh Hedayat

English Title: The Blind Owl

Original title: بوف کور

Original language: Persian

Translation from Persian to Romanian by Gheorghe Iorga

Rating: 4 out of 5

“I write only for the benefit of my shadow on the wall. I need to introduce myself to it.”

“In this damp bed smelling of sweat, when my eyelids grew heavy and I was about to surrender to nonexistence and eternal night, all my lost memories and forgotten fears came to life: fear that the feathers in the pillow might turn to blades of daggers, that the button on my bed-clothes might grow as big as a millstone, that the piece of bread which falls to the floor might shatter like a piece of glass. I was apprehensive that should I fall asleep, the oil in the tallow burner might spill over and cause the whole city to go up in flames. The compulsive thought that the paws of the dog in front of the butcher shop might echo like the sound of the hoofs of a horse. Nagging fear that the rag-and-bone dealer sitting at his display might suddenly begin to laugh, a laughter that he could no longer control. I was afraid that the worm in the footpath of our pond might become a serpent, and that my quilt might become a tombstone with hinges that would slide and lock its marble teeth and bury me alive. I was afraid that I might lose my voice and no matter how much I screamed, nobody would come to my help.”

 

I’ve been trying to gather a few words about this book over the past few weeks but, after you read a book like “The Blind Owl”, it feels like words have lost their meaning.

Gheorghe Iorga has worked on the Romanian translation over a long period of time, starting in 1978, until 1996. In his well worth reading foreword, he writes about the evolution of the persian literature from poetry to modern fiction.

Sadegh Hedayat was one of the three fathers of Persian fiction (the other two were Mohammad-Ali Jamālzādeh and Mohammad Hejazi) and the sole father of modernist Persian literature. He was born into an aristocratic family in Tehran and grew up during a turbulent time in the history of Iran. Hedayat was educated first in Tehran and then studied dentistry, architecture and engineering in France and Belgium. After coming into contact with the leading intellectual figures of Europe, Hedayat abandoned his studies and dedicated his life to studying Western literature and to learning Iranian folklore and history. He has often been compared by the critics to Kafka and Poe. I cannot compare his writings with anyone’s because I don’t know and can’t imagine anything like it. The only thing that its strangeness reminded me of was David Lynch’s movies.

“The Blind Owl” has been subsequently banned for at least a decade in Iran (there was a wave of suicides after its been published) and seems to have been a taboo novel for even longer.

It is not an easy book to read. It’s dark, disturbing and yet strangely attractive. It is a poisonous and often hallucinatory novel, a book of obsessions, either narcotic or female related. The dialogue is inexistent, replaced by a monologue that oscillates between hysteria, madness, paranoia, agony and satisfaction, ecstasy.

It is difficult to tell when the events described are veiled by an opium-induced altered state of consciousness, are just a madman’s dream or are real. Some of the narrated events are terrifying nonetheless (an example is the outrageous test his mother demanded his father and his father’s twin-brother subject themselves to), but it’s the manner in which they are described that’s frightening. The images are surreal and the repetitions are hypnotic. There is a series of characters, images, objects, sounds, feelings which are visited again and again by the protagonist. The importance of these (if there is any) is never really explained and we are left wondering and forced to find our own (most certainly wrong) conclusions.

The obsessive presence of women (in different roles) in this book is symbolic. The narrator who is seeking confirmation of identity is desperate for the eyes or the face that can respond to him in order to confirm his being. When the narrator cannot find such confirmation, his life is hollow. The woman problem becomes the problem of existence and meaninglessness.

In the first part of the book, the woman is an angelic presence – the loved woman – who draws the narrator in with her beauty and gives him a reason to live. The sexual contact brings nothingness, destroys the dream and the innocence and the narrator is left in his arms with a rotting corpse. Later, the woman as a wife (referred with the appellative whore) is the cunning, perverse woman. She can’t be (sexually) touched. The woman also appears as a mother or a foster-mother. But she’s always hard to reach, seems to be unattainable.

Another character, always present next to a woman, is the old man with a dirty, grotesque appearance that destroys any beautiful dream.

It is said that the owls feed on the souls of the dying. At the level of unconscious, there is a fear of sex as “eating” and being eaten. When things are eaten, they disappear; therefore, one goes out of existence. Instead of being eaten, he dreams of eating the woman, of making her disappear.

Sadegh Hedayat committed suicide in 1951, following the example of his character in “The Blind Owl” (although the latter dies only spiritually).

There is much more to this novel than what I have just wrote. “The Blind Owl” offers a perpetual assault on the reader’s imagination and this commentary could go on for hours, but I will leave it up to you to experience your own reaction to the the author’s words.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi (Afghanistan)

The Patience Stone by Atiq RahimiTitle: The Patience Stone

Author: Atiq Rahimi

Original title: Syngué Sabour

Original language: French

Translation from French by Polly McLean

Rating: 4 out of 5

 “A fly sneaks into the heavy hush of the room. Lands on the man’s forehead. Hesitant. Uncertain. Wanders over his wrinkles, licks his skin. No taste. Definitely no taste.

The fly makes its way down into the corner of his eye. Still hesitant. Still uncertain. It tastes the white of the eye, then moves off. It isn’t chased away. It resumes its journey, getting lost in the beard, climbing the nose. Takes flight. Explores the body. Returns. Settles once more on the face. Clambers onto the tube stuffed into the half-open mouth. Licks it, moves right along it to the edge of the lips. No spit. No taste. The fly continues, enters the mouth. And is engulfed.”

 

I’m not sure whether I should look for any symbol into that, but a couple of years ago, when I moved from my homeland to my adoptive country, I was starting my journey with an Afghan writer, Khaled Hosseini and “The Kite Runner”. Now I’m embarking on this new adventure with another Afghan writer, Atiq Rahimi and “The Patience Stone”.

Atiq Rahimi is both a writer and a filmmaker. He was born in Afghanistan, but fled to Pakistan and later to France during the Soviet invasion. Since then he has been primarily residing in France. Besides writing, he produced a couple of documentaries for the French television, as well as several commercials. He also created Afghanistan’s first soap opera. Rahimi speaks French, his native language being Dari, a dialect of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He used French for this novel rather than Dari, and that made it easier for him – later, the author admitted that a kind of involuntary self-censorship and an unconscious shame that dwells in Afghan society prevented him from expressing himself in his maternal language.

“The Patience Stone” tells the story of a nameless Afghan woman who takes care of her comatose husband. When the novel begins she has been sitting there, beside her man, for sixteen days without any other sign of life other than his breath.

The entire story unfolds in a single room, in a movie-like narrative style. Although the man is severely injured and cannot speak or move, being supposedly unconscious, the entire book is written from his perspective, what he would see and hear if he were conscious. We hear sounds, including the sound of war, whispers, footsteps from outside of the room. But none of them interrupt the man’s breathing, which serves as a unit of measurement for time.

The woman begins to talk and the man becomes her Sang-e Saboor. In Persian folklore, Sang-e Saboor is the name of a magical black stone, a patience stone, which absorbs the grief of those who confide in it.

As the story progresses, she’s opening up her deepest desires, pains, and secrets to him, things that she couldn’t have shared with him if he would have been awake. She shares childhood memories, tells him how she and her sisters were deprived of affection. She remembers how they’ve come to be married, how she was engaged at age seventeen to a man she had never seen and then married in absentia. She talks about their loveless sex life.

The Patience Stone, silent, takes it all in.

Through her monologue, Rahimi offers an insight into Afghan women’s lives. She speaks of sexual desire, of obedience, war and honor in a conservative society. Rahimi’s Afghan woman is not an asexual, maternal, saintly figure, but an ordinary woman, filled with emotions and desires and unable to express herself and to be understood.

What happens to the Patience Stone in the end? It is believed that the day it explodes, after having received too much hardship and pain, will be the Judgement Day, and the day when man and woman will be set free from their suffering forever.

The book’s ending mirrors this myth quite well.

More I think about it, this small book was the perfect book to start my literary journey with.