Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl: An Introduction
Sadeq Hedayat was born on 17 February 1903 and died on 9 April 1951. He was descended from Rezaqoli Khan Hedayat, a notable 19th century poet, historian of Persian literature and author of Majma’ al-Fosaha, Riyaz al-’Arefin and Rawza al-Safa-ye Naseri. Many members of his extended family were important state officials, political leaders and army generals, both in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hedayat is the author of The Blind Owl, the most famous Persian novel both in Iran and in Europe and America. Many of his short stories are in a critical realist style and are regarded as some of the best written in 20th century Iran. But his most original contribution was the use of modernist, more often surrealist, techniques in Persian fiction. Thus, he was not only a great writer, but also the founder of modernism in Persian fiction.
Having studied at the exclusive St Louis French missionary school in Tehran, Hedayat went to Europe, supported by a state grant, spending a year in Belgium in 1926–27, a year and a half in Paris in 1928–29, two terms in Reims in 1929 and a year in Besançon in 1929–30. Having still not finished his studies, he surrendered his scholarship and returned home in the summer of 1930. This provides a clue to his personality in general, and his perfectionist outlook in particular, which sometimes resulted in nervous paralysis.
Back in Tehran, Hedayat became the central figure among the Rab’eh, or Group of Four, which included Mojtaba Minovi, Bozorg Alavi and Mas’ud Farzad, but had an outer belt including Mohammad Moqaddam, Zabih Behruz and Shin Partaw. They were all modern- minded and critical of the literary establishment, both for its social traditionalism and intellectual classicism. They were also resentful of the literary establishment’s contemptuous attitude towards themselves, and its exclusive hold over academic posts and publications.
In the early 1930s, Hedayat drifted between clerical jobs. In 1936 he went to Bombay at the invitation of Sheen Partaw, who was then an Iranian diplomat in that city. Predictably, he had run afoul of the official censors, and in 1935 was made to give a pledge not to publish again. That was why when he later issued the first, limited edition of The Blind Owl in Bombay, he wrote on the title page that it was not for publication in Iran, predicting the possibility of a copy finding its way to Iran and falling into the hands of the censors.
During the year in Bombay, he learnt the ancient Iranian language Pahlavi among the Parsee Zoroastrian community, wrote a number of short stories and published The Blind Owl in 50 duplicated copies, most of which he distributed among friends outside Iran.
He was back in Tehran in September 1937, although he had returned with great reluctance and simply because he did not feel justified in continuing to depend on his friend’s hospitality in Bombay. In 1939, he joined the newly founded Office of Music as an editor of its journal, Majelleh-ye Musiqi (The Music Magazine). It was literary work among a small group of relatively young and modern intellectuals, including Nima Yushij, the founder of modernist Persian poetry. He might well have regarded that as the most satisfactory post he ever had.
It did not last long. After the Allied invasion of Iran and abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, the Office of Music and its journal were closed down, and Hedayat ended up as a translator at the College of Fine Arts, where he was to remain till the end of his life. He also became a member of the editorial board of Parviz Khanlari’s modern literary journal Sokhan, an unpaid but prestigious position. Even though the country had been occupied by foreign powers, there were high hopes and great optimism for democracy and freedom upon the collapse of the absolute and arbitrary government. The new freedom – indeed, licence – resulting from the Reza Shah’s abdication led to intense political, social and literary activities. The modern educated elite were centred on the newly organized Tudeh party, which was then a broad democratic front led by Marxist intellectuals, although by the end of the ’40s it had turned into an orthodox communist party. Hedayat did not join the party even in the beginning, but had sympathy for it and had many friends among Tudeh intellectuals.
But the party’s support for the Soviet-inspired Azerbaijan revolt in 1946, which led to intense conflicts within its ranks, and the sudden collapse of the revolt a year later, deeply upset and alienated Hedayat from the movement. He had always been a severe and open critic of established Iranian politics and cultural traditions, and his break with radical intellectuals made him a virtual émigré in his own land. This was a significant contribution to the depression he suffered in the late 1940s, which eventually led to his suicide in Paris in 1951.
For some time his close friend Hasan Shahid-Nura’i, who was serving as a diplomat in France, had been encouraging him to go to Paris. There were signs that his depression was deepening day by day. He was extremely unhappy with his life in Tehran, not least among intellectuals, many of whom were regularly describing him as a ‘petty- bourgeois demoralizer’, and his work as ‘black literature’.
Through his letters to friends one may observe, not far underneath the surface, his anger and despair, his acute sensitivity, his immeasurable suffering, his continuously darkening view of his own country and its people, and his condemnation of life. Through them, perhaps more than his fiction, one may see the three aspects of his predicament: the personal tragedy, the social isolation and the universal alienation.
In a letter which he wrote in French to a friend in Paris four years before his last visit, he had said:
The point is not for me to rebuild my life. When one has lived the life of animals which are constantly being chased, what is there to rebuild? I have taken my decision. One must struggle in this cataract of shit until disgust with living suffocates us. In Paradise Lost, Reverend Father Gabriel tells Adam ‘Despair and die’, or words to that effect. I am too disgusted with everything to make any effort; one must remain in the shit until the end.
Ultimately, what he called ‘the cataract of shit’ proved too unbearable for him to remain in it till the end.
Hedayat’s fiction, including novels, short stories, drama and satire, written between 1930 and 1946, comprises Parvin Dokhtar-e Sasan (Parvin the Sasanian Girl), Afsaneh-ye Afarinesh (The Legend of Creation), ‘Al-bi’tha(t) al-Islamiya ila’l-Bilad al- Afranjiya’ (Islamic Mission to European Cities), Zendeh beh Gur, (Buried Alive), Aniran (Non-Iranian), Maziyar, Seh Qatreh Khun (Three Drops of Blood), Alaviyeh Khanom (Mistress Alaviyeh), Sayeh Roshan (Chiaroscuro) Vagh-vagh Sahab (Mr Bow-Vow), Buf-e Kur (The Blind Owl), ‘Sampingé’ and ‘Lunatique’ (both in French), Sag-e Velgard (The Stray Dog), Hajji Aqa, Velengari (Mucking About), and Tup-e Morvari (The Morvari Cannon).
I have classified Hedayat’s fiction into four analytically distinct categories, although there is some inevitable overlapping between them: romantic nationalist fiction, critical realist stories, satire and psycho-fiction.
First, the romantic nationalist fiction. The historical dramas – Parvin and Maziyar, and the short stories ‘The Shadow of the Mongol’ (Sayeh-ye Moghol), and ‘The Last Smile’ (Akharin Labkhand) – are on the whole simple in sentiment and raw in technique. They reflect sentiments arising from the Pan-Persianist ideology and cult which swept over the Iranian modernist elite after the First World War. ‘The Last Smile’ is the most mature work of this kind. Hedayat’s explicit drama is not highly developed, and he quickly abandoned the genre along with nationalist fiction. But many of his critical realist short stories could easily be adapted for the stage with good effect.
The second category of Hedayat’s fictions, his critical realist works, are numerous and often excellent, the best examples being ‘Alaviyeh Khanom’ (Mistress Alaviyeh) which is a comedy in the classical sense of the term, ‘Talab-e Amorzesh’ (Seeking Absolution), ‘Mohallel’ (The Legalizer), and ‘Mordeh-khor-ha’ (The Ghouls). To varying degrees, both satire and irony are used in these stories, though few of them could be accurately described as satirical fiction.
They tend to reflect aspects of the lives and traditional beliefs of the contemporary urban lower-middle classes with ease and accuracy. But contrary to views long held, they are neither ‘about the poor or downtrodden’, nor do they display sympathy for their types and characters. Wretchedness and superstition are combined with sadness, joy, hypocrisy and occasionally criminal behaviour. This was in the tradition set by Jamalzadeh (though he had more sympathy for his characters), enhanced by Hedayat and passed on to Chubak and Al-e Ahmad in their earlier works.
Coming to the third category, Hedayat’s satirical fiction is rich and often highly effective. He was a master of wit, and wrote both verbal and dramatic satire. It takes the form of short stories, novels, as well as short and long anecdotes. They hit hard at their subjects, usually with effective subtlety, though sometimes outright lampooning, denunciation and invective reveal the depth of the author’s personal involvement in his fictional satire. Hajji Aqa is the longest and most explicit of Hedayat’s satires on the political establishment. Superficial appearances and critical propaganda notwithstanding, it is much less a satire on the ways of the people of the bazaar and much more of a merciless attack on leading conservative politicians. Indeed, the real-life models for the Hajji of the title were supplied by two important old-school (and, as it happens, by no means the worst) politicians.
Hedayat would have had a lasting and prominent position in the annals of Persian literature on account of what I have so far mentioned. What has given him his unique place, nevertheless, is his psycho-fiction, of which The Blind Owl is the best and purest example. This work and the short story ‘Three Drops of Blood’ are modernist in style, using techniques of French symbolism and surrealism in literature, of surrealism in modern European art and of expressionism in the contemporary European films, including the deliberate confusion of time and space. But most of the other psycho-fictional stories – e.g. ‘Zendeh beh Gur’ (‘Buried Alive’), ‘Arusak-e Posht-e Pardeh’ (‘Puppet behind the Curtain’), ‘Bon-bast’ (‘Dead End’), ‘Tarik-khaneh’ (‘Dark Room’), ‘Davud-e Guzhposht’ (‘Davud the Hunchback’) and ‘The Stray Dog’ – use realistic techniques in presenting psycho-fictional stories.
The appellation ‘psycho-fictional’, coined by myself in the mid-1970s to describe this particular genre in Hedayat’s literature, does not render the same sense as is usually conveyed by the well-worn concept and category of ‘the psychological novel’. Rather, it reflects the essentially subjective nature of the stories, which brings together the psychological, the ontological and the metaphysical in an indivisible whole.
Hedayat’s psycho-fictional stories, such as ‘Three Drops of Blood’ and ‘Buried Alive’, are macabre and, at their conclusions, feature the deaths of both humans and animals. Most human beings are no better than rajjaleh (rabble), and the very few who are better fail miserably to rise up to reach perfection or redemption. Even the man who tries to ‘kill’ his nafs, to mortify his flesh, or destroy his ego, in the short story ‘The Man Who Killed His Ego’ ends up by killing himself; that is, not by liberating but by annihilating his soul. Women are either lakkateh (harlots), or they are Fereshteh, that is, angelic apparitions who wilt and disintegrate upon appearance, though this is only true of women in the psycho-fictions, women of similar cultural background to the author, not those of lower classes in his critical realist stories.
As a man born into an extended family of social and intellectual distinction, a modern as well as modernist intellectual, a gifted writer steeped in the most advanced Persian as well as European culture, and with a psyche which demanded the highest standards of moral and intellectual excellence, Hedayat was bound to carry, as he did, an enormous burden, which very few individuals could suffer with equanimity, especially as he bore the effects of the clash of the old and the new, and the Persian and the European, such as few Iranians have experienced. He lived an unhappy life, and died an unhappy death. It was perhaps the inevitable cost of the literature which he bequeathed to humanity.
By Dr. Homa Katouzian (University of Oxford)
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