Hedayat’s first-person narrator suffers from an unspecified illness that is probably depression. He feels himself to be “in a state of decomposition and gradual disintegration,” in which “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 observes that “a fearful abyss lies between me and other people,” and wallows in misanthropic loathing of the ordinary folk he calls “rabble-men”: “Each and every one of them consisted only of a mouth and a wad of guts hanging from it, the whole terminating in a set of genitals.” His condition manifests, paradoxically, in occasional feelings of lofty invincibility—a delusion not uncommon among manic depressives: “I had become a god. I was greater than God, and I even felt within the eternal, finite flux . . . ”
His one source of solace is opium, which he takes with happy abandon to produce feverish epiphanies that make him feel at one with “the revolutions of earth and heaven, in the germination of plants and in the instinctive movements of animals. Past and future, far and near had joined together and fused in the life of my mind.” In the oneiric mist of Hedayat’s narration it is sometimes hard to distinguish the drug-induced reveries from the ordinary course of his protagonist’s torpor:
One by one, past experiences, past states of mind and obliterated, lost memories of childhood recurred to me. Not only did I see these things but I took part in the bustle of bygone activity, was wholly immersed in it. With each moment that passed I grew smaller and more like a child.
The narrator broods over his unhappy relationship with his estranged wife, who is referred to throughout as “the bitch.” That unfortunate moniker aside, he takes her repeated and brazen cheating with remarkable good grace. “[P]erhaps she simply wanted to be free,” he muses. He gushes over her physical beauty and whines self-pityingly about his predicament: “I wanted my wife’s lovers to teach me deportment, manners, the technique of seduction! However . . . the fools all laughed in my face.” He diagnoses his emasculated condition as a case of arrested development, observing that “my wife was now a grown-up while I had remained a child. I actually felt ashamed in her presence, under her gaze.”
A handful of shadowy peripheral characters lend the story a sinister and uncanny feel: a gravedigger with a propensity for laughing at nothing; a gnarly old street-vendor who parks himself outside the narrator’s home and at one point sleeps with his wife; and a band of drunken policemen who materialise fleetingly at odd intervals, each time singing the same ditty about wine. But the narration is primarily concerned with the interior life of its tortured protagonist. He rejects the consolations of the afterlife, dismissing prayer as “the pious practice of bobbing up and down in honour of a high and mighty Being . . . with whom it was impossible to have a chat except in the Arabic language.” That derisive reference to Arabic is telling: as a Zoroastrian and an Iranian nationalist, Hedayat’s scepticism towards Islamic piety would have been of a piece with his antipathy towards Arabs, whom many nationalistic Iranians resent for having brought Islam to Iran. That chauvinism is further showcased in his narrator’s scornful, racialised description of his Turkic brother-in-law, who has
one of those impassive, soulless Turkoman faces which are so appropriate to a people engaged in an unremitting battle with life . . . Their ancestors . . . had bequeathed to them a share of their stubbornness, sensuality, rapacity and hungriness.
The brother-in-law, incidentally, is a mere boy, and our hapless protagonist is so taken by the similarity between his features and those of his errant wife that he lunges at the lad for a kiss. So we can add pederasty, along with prurience, blasphemy, and nihilism, to the charge sheet against the narrator of this comprehensively obscene novella. For all its allure as an artefact of cross-cultural modernist avant-gardism, the book’s political baggage is every bit as fascinating as its aesthetic qualities. Its publication in Iran was made possible by a loosening of censorship in the wake of the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, following Iran’s invasion by British and Soviet forces during the Second World War. Some readers have interpreted The Blind Owl’s claustrophobic bleakness as an allegorical comment on life under Reza Shah’s oppressive regime; this might seem a little tenuous, but the story does, in its own allusive way, offer a microcosmic snapshot of twentieth-century Iran’s difficult relationship with modernity. Here is a protagonist seemingly impervious to the pull of religiosity and familial obligation, perversely revelling in his isolation and embracing oblivion with grim fatalism. Given the mire of social contradictions that would culminate in the Islamic Revolution of 1979—chief among these the stranglehold of religious conservatism and authoritarianism over public life in a country with an otherwise outward-looking and progressive cosmopolitan culture—it is tempting to see Hedayat’s narrator as some kind of prescient doom-monger, a cipher for the confusions of a nation in a state of flux.
D. P. Costello’s translation, which dates back to 1957, has aged well. The prose is crisp and minimal, the syntax uncomplicated. Only a couple of phrases strike a slightly clunky note, notably the aforementioned “rabble-men,” which pops up several times. A word like “plebs” might perhaps have rolled off the tongue a little more easily, while still doing justice to the narrator’s haughtiness. In this new English edition, The Blind Owl appears alongside a number of short stories translated by Deborah Miller Mostaghel. These engage with themes broadly similar to those explored in The Blind Owl: morbidity, masculine impotence, and the suicidal impulse. “Davoud the Hunchback” tells of the social isolation of a cripple who is shunned by women; he befriends a sick dog, who promptly dies on him. The protagonist of “Hajji Morad” lashes out at a woman in the street, having mistaken her for his wife embarking on a clandestine frolic. He is arrested and ordered to pay a fine; the incident prompts him to divorce his actual wife. The narrator of “Buried Alive” is a depressive who laments that “an overwhelming laziness has nailed me to the bed” and longs to “open my head and take out all the soft, grey, twisted mass of my brain and throw it all away, throw it to a dog.” “No,” he explains, “no one decides to commit suicide. Suicide is with some people. It is in their very nature, they can’t escape it.”
Confronted with such material, the urge to pan out to the author’s personal life is irresistible. Hedayat made an unsuccessful suicide attempt at the age of twenty-four and eventually took his own life in 1951, aged forty-eight. A remark in the The Blind Owl offers a hint as to the genesis of the book. Unable to find a suitable creative outlet for his anguish (he works as a decorator of pen-cases, a trade he wryly claims to have chosen precisely “in order to stupefy myself”), the narrator alights on writing: “The only thing that makes me write is the need, the overmastering need . . . to create a channel between my thoughts and my unsubstantial self, my shadow . . . ” The psycho-sexual preoccupations in his writing suggest intriguing parallels with Franz Kafka, who was known to suffer from similar problems; Hedayat was an avid admirer of Kafka and translated some of his works into Farsi in the 1940s.
Homa Katouzian’s introduction rightly situates Hedayat within the broad pantheon of twentieth-century modernist fiction, but The Blind Owl also belongs to another tradition: a literature of angst and lassitude, some of which predates modernism by many years. Its plot calls to mind The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Goethe’s story about a young man plunged into a terminal malaise by unrequited love, which inspired a number of copycat suicides in its time. Perhaps more pertinent, though, is Joris-Karl Huysmans’ decadent tale of aristocratic dissipation, Against Nature (1884). Hedayat’s patrician background might help explain the sense of lonely ennui that pervades his work—either as the product of congenital mental illness or, more prosaically, the double-displacement of an expat aristocrat in a bourgeois society abroad—but his compelling portraits of alienation transcend the specificity of their socio-historical context; they speak universally, as Hamsun and Kafka did, to the frailty of the human psyche.