Authors: Sadegh Hedayat
D. P. Costello
Copyright Â© 1957 by John Calder (Publishers) Ltd.
Introduction copyright Â© 2010 by Porochista Khakpour
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eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9642-2
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AMONG THE MANY PLACES I WAS FORBIDDEN TO GO AS
a youth, was through the pages of a book that didn't even exist in our bookshelves. 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. But there was one book, a notable book, we did not have a copy of, whose absence I was soon enough made to not just feel but to crave so ardently that it almost makes sense to me why I'd end up here, of all places.
I was barely double-digits when I first heard the title
The Blind Owl
âit sounded not unlike the titles of my children's storybooks. 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. Silence.
Is it about a blind owl?
Do we have it?
I asked. There was something in my father's uncharacteristic reticence that made me push further. 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?
Of course. Everyone in Iran has read it.
The logical complaint:
Then why can't I?
It was then that my father, suddenly desperately grave, told me that the reason we didn't have a copyâthe reason, if he could help it, that I would never get my hands on one as wellâwas that, apparently, it had caused many suicides in Iran after it was published. Silence.
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 lifeâsuicide 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.
Here. But don't read it.
Eyes downcast, fidgeting, silence.
Or maybe it's not as bad in English. I don't know.
But don't think about it too much.
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. My second phase was the one in which I wanted to read it but just couldn't. It was no doubt the superstition about suicide. In my early twenties, I grew more and more depressiveâsuicide became less dazzling, more hauntingâand the book felt like a loaded gun in an unlocked cabinet, as it sat there, gathering dust, unfiled, flat, virginal, in opposition to the other lovingly aged books on my bookshelf. 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. I was waiting for an era where my magical thinking would look as absurd as my father's did to me in my sunnier youth.
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. I didn't have confidence either, but at least I didn't have fear. I finally picked up the book, once in my parent's home again, and read it fast, all the way through in one sitting, as if the words were on fire, as if it would burn me if I lingered too long, the magical thinking not altogether dust just yet.
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. But I couldn't bring it up. 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. In searching for my novel's epigraph, my mind turned to, appropriately,
The Blind Owl
. I picked one: “
I thought to myself: if it's true that every person has a star in the sky, mine must be distant, dim, and absurd. Perhaps I never had a star.
” It was in many ways an epigraph that did not suit my novel, but it certainly suited
at the moment. 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 attune 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. P. Costello's 1957 translation. Of course, my first thought was that it seemed embarrassing that I'd even be a liaison in this missionâI could imagine Hedayat rolling his eyes at me through his thick black-framed spectacles and wisecracking something along those lines. 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. Even if they don't stand behind certain story line special effects or are confounded by its many baffling twists and turns, they consider it very much
; Hedayat feels so much in our blood that it's hard to remember he came to be in Iran and not the other way around.
The Blind Owl
barely needs introducingâit's the most famous Persian novel in Iran and the West (U.S. and Europe), and Hedayat is without argument the father of Persian modernist fiction. But
The Blind Owl'
s revolutionary surrealism is the exception to even Hedayat's own rules, as most of his stories are in the realist vein, often wryly comic
in satiric works or resolutely nostalgic in nationalist-realist works. 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. But Hedayat's prose has always been accessible in its simple style, much like Edgar Allen Poeâhis closest Western kin, along with Kafka, one can argue, both of whom he held in high regardâwho is often taught in American middle school. Perhaps the very prose, coupled with its fabled notoriety, has made it an essential literary hand-me-down in Iran. I'd like to think the Iranian disposition is simply more all-embracing of the experimental in art, as well as more inviting of investigations into the darkest crevices of the human soul.
But for whatever reason, it is one of Hedayat's only forays into such horror. It is a masterpiece of what eminent Hedayat scholar Homa Katouzian calls “psycho-fiction”âthat which “reflects the essentially subjective nature of the stories, which bring together the psychological, ontological, and metaphysical in an indivisible whole.” In that way it feels like his most “real” work, even in its almost mystical fabulism. It feels as if it exists independently of its author, as if it were a relic, without tangible attribution, like a holy scripture, a certain unearthly authenticity reaffirmed by the rawness of its feverish confessional toneâand parallels
to Hedayat's bio, of course. And that, of course, renders this frightening tale all the more frightening.
In the end, the book only reflects certain elements of Hedayat's life. There is the perpetual haze of opium which, based on whatever account you subscribe to, Hedayat was an occasional dabbler or a hopeless addict. And there is, of course, Hedayat's fascination with Indiaâhe studied Middle Persian in Bombay, where he apparently penned
The Blind Owl
âin the core myth of the narrative, the chilling “trial by cobra,” which the half-Indian narrator's Hindu dancer mother, Bugam Dasi (the novel's only named character), initiates, igniting the whole nightmare premise of story. And there is Hedayat's vegetarianism, which he fully dedicated himself to in India, portrayed in the novel's herbivoric undertones by the narrator's consternation over the routine sight of a local butcher at work. And there is Hedayat's notoriously asexual or homosexual bachelorhoodâagain depending on which account you subscribe toâin the novel's sexual anxieties and impotency qualms with multiple images of stunted virility, from various stills of lascivious and yet unsatisfying elderly male lovers to ultimately the novel's climax, which, as brilliant Hedayat scholar Michael Beard points out, is an
climax involving a knife taking over what the organic phallus fails to fulfill.
And, of course, there is the sense of an eternally alienated outsider's cast on the whole novel, a despair we know was definitely Hedayat's, which likely led to his suicide
by gassing himself in 1951. He carried an inconsolable loneliness in walking through the world as well as in the artistic rendering of it. Hedayat's narrator is either representing his nightmare through painting or by confessing it through writing, but in either case he lets us know that the creative act is his way of dialoguing with his shadow. . . which Beard skillfully points out could very well be
the audience beholding the narrator's, as well as Hedayat's, art.