I’ve just read The Blind Owl, first published in Farsi in 1937 by Sadiq Hidayat/Sadegh Hedayat (confusingly, his name is spelt in two different ways, depending on when/where he was published in English/American editions). It is a hallucinatory tale that is simultaneously sinister, troubling, disturbing — yet always compellingly so. The eeriness itself, its atmosphere, is reminiscent of Poe’s famous short story, The Tell-tale Heart, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Kafka’s claustrophobic environments and strange experiences in The Castle and in the city of Joseph K.’s The Trial. It strikes me that the author has consciously accounted for these influences, though there may be many others from Persian/Iranian literature, which provided his own cultural background.
So how could you not be drawn in? After all, it is a story of madness, obsession and horrific murder, even — perhaps — necrophilia, and of lying down with her in bed as she decomposes (I say perhaps because his madness or at least derangement and hallucinatory frame of mind makes uncertain whatever he says or claims to have done). Some of this, understandably, does sound like some sort of gross-out horror story, right? Actually, parts are, just a tad, but nothing compared to the provocative gross-out crimes to be found in certain fictions by such entertaining writers as — sorry, these examples are just off the top of my head, not some well-thought through/ranked list — Joe R. Lansdale, Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates (especially her novel, Zombie), Stephen King, Val McDermid and Hubert Selby, Jr..
But I assure you, while shocking/horrific, it’s more that you feel disturbed than grossed out, I think (unless I’m some sort of psychonut and just can’t tell anymore — ahem). The tale is sophisticated and complex and at the same time it is ‘told’ to you in such a matter-of-fact way — albeit in a poeticised form of mad narrative, it does all remain coherent, rather than something out of Joycean stream-of-conscious — that inevitably it is disturbing, though surely this should be the case of any tale of madness?
The English translation by D. P. Costello — in fact, it is the one originally commissioned and first published in the UK way back in 1957 — is clear, using accessible language, and yet, as I’ve indicated, it is also deeply poetic. The language itself, though, is part of the tricksiness/duplicity of the story, in that you begin to realise — by which time it is too late anyway to do anything about it — that you are being lulled into a false sense of security, of trusting the narrator, and you become increasingly aware that the simplicity of the telling is part of a trap the author has set you, the reader… you, read on innocently, uncertain of the future you are about to imbibe, and almost immediately the author has a stranglehold on you as you’re imprisoned in the character’s mind; yet the quality of the language, and the compelling strangeness of the story itself make you feel as if your eyelids are forced open and you’re being made to watch. Akin, I felt, to that famous scene — I refer you, dear reader, to the lovely image left/above in this paragraph — with Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971), in which the charming sadist Alex is being forcefully ‘reconditioned’ to become conformist and obedient. Except here, the power alone of The Blind Owl is enough to glue you to itself. Now that’s quality fiction for you.
The narrator comes across as an unassuming, simple man, who makes his living as an artist creating designs on the lids of pen-cases. The design is always the same image — ‘in the grip of a mad obsession’, as he sometimes unconsciously refers to himself as if his actions were those of another — the design is of ‘a Cypress tree at the foot of which is squatting a bent old man bent like a fakir [… and] a woman ‘holding a flower of morning glory in her hand. Between them runs a stream’. This is one of many phrases he repeats throughout the telling of his tale.
You soon realise that madness is central to the story as is murder (or, that the madness itself is caused by the murder). A handful of pages in, and he’s describing to you the severing of his wife’s head with a knife, and his disposal of her body is grotesque and surreal, involving amputation, a heavy suitcase — three guesses as to why — and a creepy old man who helps him bury it. But has he really done these things or are they, in fact, delusions/fantasies? Either way, whether he’s ‘only’ deranged and has fantasised about killing of his wife, or if he actually has, you can’t help but read on, Alex-like, ‘looking’ at what is happening to him, in the same unhealthily curious way drivers/passers-by often look at a traffic accident, wanting, yet not wanting, to ‘witness’ the horror, blood, guts and terror of it in stark reality. Yet probably most of us do look. It is like that here; it is genuinely disturbing to think we, in ways comparable to the narrator, can’t help ourselves.
Clearly, the narrator is having — or has experienced — what seems a complete nervous breakdown/break from reality, and the world he describes is that of a socio/psychopath, though he never really sees himself as such or, if he does, it’s only momentary; a fleeting thought. He has no real sense of time, admitting that an event of a thousand years ago may seem to him more real than something that occurred yesterday. On top of which, he has an addiction to opium — in ever-increasing daily doses, and is drinking wine. You know from how he describes himself and his situation that he is absolutely conflicted and confused in a number of ways: he wants — is compelled — to tell you his story, yet at the same time he tells you he smokes opium because he wants to forget; and that he’s not even sure what really happened: ‘life is a fiction’, he says early on, ‘a mere story’. And here we are, smack in the heart of it. He doesn’t seem to sleep, he hardly eats or if he’s eating, it’s making no positive difference to him… he is becoming a ‘shadow’, he says, just wasting away: ‘A sensation which had long been familiar to me was this, that I was slowly decomposing while I yet lived’. He is alienated, an outsider, despising and being disgusted by others and has no value for or appreciation of his own life: in these ways he is reminiscent of the central characters of two existentialist novels in particular (though this novel was published before both of these; did this novel influence the two authors and their fiction I’m about to cite?!): Meursault, in Camus’ Outsider, and Antoine in Sartre’s Nausea. In The Blind Owl, the character thinks that ‘For some reason all activity, all happiness on the part of other people made me feel like vomiting. I was aware that my own life was finished and was slowly and painfully guttering out’; he has nightmares of beheadings, of butchering; the butcher’s opposite drawing his eye when the former works away with his knife into the flesh of his dead animals just delivered to him; he obsesses about the knife, he buys one exactly like the butcher’s own.
Such a breakdown doesn’t exclude his own sane insights into his self and circumstances and events, yet these thread through as a pattern in a cloth of a different colour overall (for example, just two pages into the story, while admitting his one ‘fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself’, he immediately goes on to say ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people’). These and others demonstrate moments of genuine self-awareness/insight, yet you know they’re not the threads holding the entire cloth together anymore; his sanity is in that sense a sort of occasional, remote echo, one of many operating levels both psychological as well as verbal in the telling of his story. In fact, only in the first an very very brief chapter, in effect a prologue, does he seem to be entirely compos mentis, as he leads on to say he is determined to make sense of it all ….
You know that he utterly loathes his wife, and he obsesses and returns time and again to key phrases and expressions, just like someone with a serious psychological fissure/crack in their worldview. Yet even his hatred for his wife — he only ever refers to her as ‘the bitch’ ‘because no other name would suit her so well’ and he believes her to have had countless affairs; not even affairs, as such, but animalistic, sexual betrayals, sleeping with anyone she chooses — and yet his hatred appears to be based upon love and lust turned dark, inwards, brooding, sadistic in tone and, ultimately, vengeful. You come to understand that because his love for her is unreciprocated (as we know, this perennial theme of revenge/murder occurs often, whether in real life or in fiction). He believes she never truly cared for him, unless possibly when she was a child; he has loved her since then. You’re also never quite sure what is part of his own inner world; his temptations and perceptions based on manifestations of rage and frustration, and instead to what degree he has truly acted upon what he refers to — especially, of course, the killing of his wife. You do know that he is morbidly consumed by her, and wants to consume her; that he feels humiliated, ridiculed and belittled by her sexual betrayals and the whole local population knowing what’s going on.
It ends as it begins, the character with his psychosis, his derangement, his endless circling, repeating thoughts and memories and hallucinatory memories; his guilt weighing down on him … or is that weight he feels on his chest bearing down on him actually the body/remains of his wife? You decide.
At first the author’s relentless use of certain stock phrases may irritate you, as it did me, and you may find yourself thinking is this just bad writing?! and doesn’t the author know he’s repeating himself?! But of course, he’s not obsessively repeating himself, rewinding and spiralling down and up and back and forth like a distressed mouse in a mad scientist’s maze. Rather, you recall, that you are in his character’s world (doh — yes, I know I is a muppet!). The stock phrases are typically haunting and seemingly disconnected/disassociated from the real world; hey include ‘I am writing only for my shadow’; ‘I saw a bent old man sitting at the foot of a cypress tree with a young girl […] The old man was biting the nail of the index finger of his left hand’. He often hears a ‘mocking laugh, of a quality to make the hairs on one’s body stand on end’; the laugh issues from his own mouth – sometimes he’s aware of this, sometimes not and attributes to others, or perhaps it is others, or bother; but there is darkness, and there is a sense of death he, and you the reader, have. He thinks ‘Only death does not lie’; well, he’s not dead, so is he telling the truth? Besides which, there are many other strange memories/and repeated, recollected phrases. All of these are hugely effective; you go from thinking WTF to god, this is bloody good and creepy!; voyeuristically, sadistically, you delight in the telling of the tale; you’re thinking, wow, this guy really is deranged and you keep on turning the pages, reading as quickly as you can. And at the same time you feel for him, knowing he could well be a sadistic murderer of his own wife, so you also feel disgusted, appalled; creeped out; yes, horribly, delightfully so, for a fiction reader’s need of suspension of disbelief. Yet you also feel conflicted, because he may ‘only’ be deranged and actually needs therapeutic help (and staying off the opium and wine wouldn’t be a bad idea — unless he did kill her!). The narrative, then, has real power.
It is well worth the read, despite its cover price (after all, it’s only 150 pages in length, and that’s because of some generous layout/design — my first Harvill paperback edition of the same translation only had 98 pages). On this point, however, the link I have embedded in the book cover’s image at the top of this post is to online booksellers, BookDepository.com, and they have provided a 19% discount from the RRP and include free delivery wherever you are in the world, so you’re paying a total, inclusive price of €7.21 / £6.45 / $10.38, which surely we all agree is better than a kick in the rubber parts, right? (Okay, so most things are…) On another positive note, OneWorld Classics, which has produced this edition, is an imprint within an excellent indie publisher and, as with their other editions and imprints, this is high-quality, as you should rightly expect.
On a sad note, however, it is disappointing that this marvellous fiction and Sadiq Hidayat/Sadegh Hedayat himself don’t seem more read or known to non-Persian readers of world literature, as it deserves a wider audience and reputation, along with the publication and promotion of some of his other works into English (there’s only one other, listed in my last sentence, below, as far as I can tell, that is available). After all, during the author’s lifetime he was regarded as the foremost Persian/Iranian writer of fiction and I believe he remains so in Iran and among Persian readers and, no doubt, a select group of others. Also, English-speaking reviewers and publications have already raved about it since its first publication here by Calder publishers in 1957, including The Guardian — I’m afraid this link is the only one to an actual review and not general info about the name highlighted, unlike the others in this paragraph — the award-winning, throbbingly big-brained playwright Tom Stoppard, the award-winning poet, Ted Hughes, The Times Literary Supplement — which I regard as the world’s most respected, widely-read and most wonderful of all intellectual journals — and the novelist, Alan Warner, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award for his first and most well-known novel Morvern Caller. But, of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that a literary classic and great writer has been overlooked or is republished in subsequent decades, yet still has the tendency not to be more widely known (Paula Fox comes to mind as one such example of this phenomenon). Anyway, I can assure you that, once read, you certainly won’t forget it. So! …Now I can’t wait to read a collection of Hidayat/Hedayat’s short stories: Three Drops of Blood. Bring it oooooon (erm, yes, I do get rather excited by great books — phwor!).