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.