The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat

Rummaging around in my TBR mountain (books waiting To Be Read), I came across this slender novel. I don’t remember where it came from; I’ve never heard of it, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy it. However, once it jumped into my hand, I was intrigued. The cover unsettled me; an interesting collage of Persian rugs, rather jumbled, with the title text pushing out of its box and just a corner of an owl’s head, it hinted at secrets and mysteries and dark things just outside your field of vision.

The story is indeed dark. The narrator is a Persian man living—if you can call it that—just outside the city of Rey. With the first line we are plunged into his maelstrom: “There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.” He goes on to talk of the agony of his disease, which I at first assumed to be depression or youthful alienation, but turns out to be much worse.

He tells us he is writing this story to capture what he remembers of a series of strange events. “My one fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself . . . I am writing only for my shadow,” he says, reminding me of Jung’s archetype.

The story is divided into two parts. The first part, chapters one to three, tells how he, a man who makes pen-cases, always painting the same scene, sees a woman, sees in fact that very scene. After this coup de foudre, he goes out walking, looking for her, although he has already told us that he has not been the same since losing her. The second part, chapters four and five, go back over and over the story, adding more information, changing details, swapping personas, building in intensity.

The story is an unsettling journey in the mind of a man going mad, as dark as something out of Poe or Kafka. That he treats his “disease” with copious amounts of wine and opium only makes what he observes even more obscure. The ever-shifting reality, the surreal happenings leave the reader reeling with vertigo, unsure of what is true and what is not.

While this is not usually the sort of story I like to read, the power of the prose held me rapt until I turned the last page. It is a bit flowery for our modern reading tastes—the book was first published in 1941—but it is irresistible.

The night was departing on tip-toe. One felt that it had shed sufficient of its weariness to enable it to go its way. The ear detected faint, far-off sounds such as the sprouting grass might have made, or some migratory bird as it dreamed upon the wing. The pale stars were disappearing behind banks of cloud. I felt the gentle breath of the morning on my face and at the same moment a cock crowed somewhere in the distance.

Also, the puzzle addict in me was kept busy trying to untangle all of the motifs and themes that the story kept spiraling back to, finding them changed each time, such as the two months and four days turning into two years and four months or the origin and composition of the mysterious bottle of wine metamorphosing.

I have seen so many contradictory things and have heard so many words of different sorts, my eyes have seen so much of the worn-out surface of various objects—the thin, tough rind behind which the spirit is hidden—that now I believe nothing. At this very moment I doubt the existence of tangible, solid things, I doubt clear, manifest truths.

Once I finished it, I set out to learn more about the book and discovered that The Blind Owl is considered the foremost work of twentieth-century Iranian fiction. Hedayat wrote it between 1925 and 1941, the last years of Reza Shah’s reign, and so is assumed by some to be about Iran’s tug of war between tradition and modernity. Yet the story is so deep and passionate that one can read it many ways. I suspect, too, that on each rereading, it will appear to be a different story.

What Iranian fiction have you read?

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