An Iranian Classic

Many years ago I bought for $7 a handsome hardback copy of the British edition of The Blind Owl. It is a small book, about the size of a trade paperback, printed on very thick paper, and only 134 pages long. The fragile dust jacket is in three colors — an overall black background, the title and author’s name in red, and in the center a black-and-white drawing of a beautiful houri-like girl reaching out toward an old turbaned man, with a small stream between them. Around this central image the jacket shows a white line drawing of a hand, grasping either the picture or a faintly outlined wine jar.

On the back cover of this neatly compact volume there is a photograph, with the caption “Sadegh Hedayat.” Nothing more. There is no biographical information, no blurbs, nothing but a large white margin. Hedayat himself looks ridiculous to modern eyes — sleekly oiled black hair combed back from his forehead in a kind of pouf, heavy and thick black glasses that recall those of Clark Kent, a suit jacket, tie, and sweater vest. He appears scholarly, serious, indeed slightly owlish.

Somewhere I must have read a little about Hedayat (1903–51), for I knew that he had committed suicide and that The Blind Owl was regarded as one of the great novels of 20th-century Iran. I knew, too, that it was phantasmagoric and macabre, somewhat in the manner of Poe, with a touch of The Arabian Nights, but also philosophical, indeed existential. Hedayat was said to have been a disciple of Sartre. Having now read the book, it does seem influenced by Sartre’s Nausea, for its narrator finds existence dizzying, an Escher-like realm of repetition, shifting perspective, and illusion.

Like so many of the world’s most intense books, The Blind Owl takes the form of a récit — a brief first-person narrative, focusing on some spiritual or emotional crisis in the speaker’s life. This is a genre that includes such masterpieces as Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Gide’s The Immoralist, Camus’s The Fall, Cela’s The Family of Pascual Duarte, and Percy’s The Moviegoer. Such books — through their confessional relentlessness — gradually draw the reader deeply into the skewed worldview of their narrator. They often end with a shock. In Cela’s novel, for instance, a man decides he must kill his own mother.

The Blind Owl starts with a quiet frisson: “There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.”

It’s always wise to pause over any book’s opening words, for here the tone is set, the seed sown for all that follows. Note, first of all, Hedeyat’s vagueness. He doesn’t tell us what kind of sores he’s talking about — are they physical? Mental? Indeed, the next paragraph, which underscores the unnamed narrator’s suffering, continues this fuzziness. We learn that relief “is to be found only in the oblivion brought about by wine and in the artificial sleep induced by opium and similar narcotics.” But, we are told, these palliatives eventually fail, and instead of alleviating the pain begin to augment it.

Certainly, the narrator conveys an ever-increasing sense of disorientation. He insists that he lives “in a state of coma like that between death and resurrection, when one is neither asleep nor awake.” How did all this come about? The narrator attempts to explain matters to his own shadow, “which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one devouring with insatiable appetite each word I write.”

And so the story begins:

“In this mean world of wretchedness and misery I thought that for once a ray of sunlight had broken upon my life.” Cut off from human contact and living within the four walls of his room as if they were a coffin, the narrator tells us that he makes his living decorating the covers of pen-cases. All his decorations are, however, precisely the same — the image of a young woman standing by a stream in front of a seated old man in a turban. The narrator cannot explain his obsessive need to paint this same picture again and again.

One day an old man comes to the door, claiming to be the artist’s uncle — and looking like the turbaned figure in the picture. Feeling somewhat flustered and wishing to properly entertain his relative, the narrator remembers an old wine jar high up on a shelf. While standing on a chair to retrieve the wine, he suddenly notices a ventilation-hole in the wall, and when he looks through it discovers the very scene he has drawn all his life, a scene centered on the beautiful girl with “slanting, Turkoman eyes of supernatural, intoxicating radiance.” The young man finds himself deeply drawn to her yet also distinctly frightened. “Her lips were full and half-open as though they had broken away only a moment before from a long, passionate kiss and were not yet sated. Her face, pale as the moon, was framed in the mass of her black, disheveled hair and one strand clung to her temple.”

By the time the increasingly infatuated artist emerges from his erotic trance, the old man claiming to be his uncle has left, disappeared. Our hero rushes outside — but finds no sign of old man, girl, or brook. When he returns home to peer through the aperture again, he discovers only a blank and seamless wall. Subsequent days pass slowly, as the celestial vision continues to obsess him: “One glance from her would have been sufficient to make plain all the problems of philosophy and the riddles of theology. One glance from her and mysteries and secrets would no longer have existed for me.”

By this point, the reader has mentally settled into the story, settled into what seems one more account of a romantic soul’s yearning for some unattainable, perhaps imagined, princess or belle dame sans merci. But now Hedayat starts to complicate matters vertiginously.

One night the narrator returns home to find his dream girl, wearing a clinging black dress, waiting outside his door. She is uncannily silent, as she brazenly enters the house and lies down on a bed. The excited young man bends over her still and quiet body, before running his fingers through her thick black hair. Her tresses are shockingly “cold and damp. Cold, utterly cold. It was as though she had been dead for several days.” In fact, she is dead, or so it would appear.

Like any half-mad hero out of Poe, our protagonist decides he must immortalize the face of his beloved before it decays. He makes sketch after sketch, but all are, well, lifeless, because he cannot capture her expression. Oh, if only he could see her tightly closed eyes! Suddenly, miraculously, the woman’s flesh starts to grow warm, even flushed, and she opens “her feverish, reproachful eyes, shining with a hectic brilliance.”

Allow me to pass lightly over the next section of the novel’s plot, which soon grows increasingly nightmarish and unsettling. For instance, the narrator acquires an ancient vase — dug from a grave — that shows the very image of his beloved. Indeed, when he compares the vase picture with his own drawing “it was impossible to tell the two apart.” The two pictures are, in fact, identical and “it seemed obvious, the work of one man.”

All these strange events occur in just the first two chapters of The Blind Owl — and there are more to come. In chapter three the narrator awakes to discover that he is no longer “a wasted, sickly young man” but rather “a bent old man, with white hair, burnt out eyes, and a hare-lip.” He has apparently become the turbaned figure of the picture. Only now does he begin to reveal more about his own past, starting with an account of his father and uncle, a pair of identical twins who fall under the spell of an Indian dancing girl. To settle their rival claims on her, the brothers agree to be locked together in a darkened room with a cobra. The survivor will possess the beautiful houri (who has already given birth to the narrator). Disturbing laughter is then heard just before the narrator’s uncle emerges — white-haired, deranged, amnesiac. But is it really the uncle and not the father? How can one ever truly know?

Shortly afterward, the dancing girl’s baby is left with an aunt who rears him with her own daughter. The two cousins eventually marry. Even though the narrator desires “the bitch” to the point of madness, she determinedly scorns his conjugal advances. Instead, rumors fly around town that the new bride gives herself to strangers and low-lifes, even to an old, white-haired man with a hare-lip and a “hollow, grating, gooseflesh-raising” laugh. The narrator’s lust for his wife grows along with his hatred and jealousy. As he speculates, “How many stories about love, copulation, marriage and death already exist, not one of which tells the truth!”

Perhaps so. But what is the truth in this bizarre and twisty confession? For as the novel proceeds, a handful of key phrases and images recur, like elements in a fugue: again and again people smile and bite the nail of the index finger of their left hand. Kissed mouths repeatedly taste “like the stub-end of a cucumber: they were acrid and bitter.” That “hollow, grating, goose-flesh raising” laugh is heard over and over. Policemen always sing the same old drinking song, and the narrator constantly fears that he will soon be arrested. More and more, our protagonist feels himself drifting toward death:

I had become like the flies which crowd indoors at the beginning of the autumn, thin, half-dead flies which are afraid at first of the buzzing of their own wings and cling to some point of the wall until they realize that they are alive; then they fling themselves recklessly against the door and walls until they fall dead around the floor.

Tantalizing mysteries proliferate in The Blind Owl. What is the relationship between the beautiful girl glimpsed through the aperture and the narrator’s seductive mother and his hated wife? Are they all the same woman — or are they aspects of Woman in general? Is the old turbaned man the narrator’s uncle — or himself? Could the narrator be dreaming or hallucinating — he regularly takes opium, after all — or is he utterly mad? Could he be dead? What is real? What is imagined? What has actually, dreadfully happened?

While I seem to have told a good deal of the plot of The Blind Owl, I have carefully left out many of its most important revelations. Yet these only further complicate an already dizzyingly kaleidoscopic story. It is certainly not a happy one, what with all the congealed blood, the torn and soiled clothes and the hungry, persistent blister-flies. While this troubling, fever-dream of a novel may be set in Iran, its true locale is the anguished human soul:

I moved in the regions where life and death fuse together and perverse images come into being and ancient, extinct desires, vague, strangled desires, again come to life and cry aloud for vengeance.

At the heart of The Blind Owl lies a profound sense of alienation, of being cut off from normal human emotions and relations. In this sense it is an existential cry de profundis. One might not be entirely sure about what has happened, or not happened, in the novel, but one is left in no doubt that “there are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.”