Whenever anyone asks me why I like owls I always tell a short story, a fictional story of course, about the first man to ever see one. Imagine blithely walking through the woods, through a forest, late one night and coming upon such a creature; imagine, to be specific, coming upon a barn owl. What is it? A bird, but not really a bird, or certainly one like no other. Lion-headed; razor-clawed; black-eyed…a ghoul, in short, in a bird-like form. There is an abundance of astonishing, disconcertingly weird animal life – the spider, for example – but none of them quite have the captivating, eerie power of the owl. The reason for this is, I think, because, unlike the spider, it has a certain human quality also, but a humanity that has been horribly distorted. It looks like something you would conjure up in a nightmare or a drug-induced hallucination, where the real and familiar combines with the odd and unexpected. In this way, although owls are only briefly mentioned in the text, it is a fitting symbol for Sadeq Hedayat’s compelling Iranian novel.
The Blind Owl begins without preamble, which is to say that Hedayat does not ease the reader into his narrative, but immediately drops you into a tale of madness and despair. The opening line, for example, describes ‘sores’ that ‘erode the mind.’ These sores are not literal, of course, but emotional or mental; they are the product of a ‘disease’ for which relief, according to the unnamed narrator, is only to be found in wine and opium. Indeed, I have come across few novels that start so intensely, with so much melodrama and hand-wringing. The world, he says, is ‘mean’ and comprised of ‘wretchedness and misery’; and people, moreover, exist only in order to cheat him. He is full of loathing, loathing for others and for himself, but is, even more so, full of self pity about his ‘poisoned’ life and ‘inconceivable suffering.’
The cause of the ‘agony’ he experiences is, predictably, a woman; or, to use his own words, a ‘star’, a ‘ray of sunlight’, an ‘angel’ that disappeared from his life forever, and whom he cannot forget. At this stage I am probably giving the impression that The Blind Owl is something of a Werther-esque story of unattainable sweethearts and lost love; and, in a way, it kind of is, especially the first half. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the early part of the novel repeatedly referencing the ‘extraordinary’ beauty of his beloved, with her ‘prominent’ cheekbones, ‘full’ lips, moon-like pallor, fine limbs, radiant eyes, and slender eyebrows that meet in the middle[!]; she is, he says, an ethereal misty form.
However, as the narrator comes to explain how he met the woman, and how he subsequently lost her, one realises that The Blind Owl has more in common with Poe or the [mostly French] surrealists or something like Jose Donoso’s gothic horror story The Obscene Bird of Night, than Goethe‘s famous novel. I do not, of course, want to give away the entire plot, but, in short, it involves windows that disappear, ‘dense mists’, uncanny images on pen cases [he has taken up decorating these in an effort to stupify himself or kill time, he says] and jars, black ‘skeleton thin’ horses, dismemberment, a hearse, and a great deal of blood, etc. Like The Obscene Bird of Night the timeline of these events is confused, which mirrors, of course, the mental state of the narrator, a man who, as has already been mentioned, is often drunk on wine or high on opium.
As one would expect, then, there is much in the novel about reality and fantasy. One is invited to ask oneself how much of what you are reading is true and how much is false, or, to be more precise, how much is real and how much is hallucination or fiction. Indeed, there are numerous references to dreams and visions throughout The Blind Owl, such as when the narrator describes himself as being in a state of mingled horror and delight akin to that produced by a ‘delicious, fearful dream.’ Moreover, he says of opium that it puts him in a state that is like being ‘neither awake nor asleep’, and, more tellingly, or consequently, that everything he sees, thinks, and feels might be ‘entirely imaginary.’ Yet there is also the suggestion that he may, in fact, simply be making things up, for he admits at one stage that his story might not contain even ‘the slightest particle of truth.’
“I write only for my shadow which is cast on the wall in front of the light. I must introduce myself to it.”
As engaging as all this is, the most interesting element of the novel, for me, is when Hedayat writes about identity or ‘the self.’ The first hint of this is when, at the beginning of The Blind Owl, the narrator says that he wants to ‘know himself’, as though there is some part that is unknown or unknowable. He also claims to be composing the story for his shadow, which he refers to numerous times as though it is a separate, individual being. There is, furthermore, more than one instance in which people become other people, or people are switched, or there is some confusion as to who is who. For example, there is an anecdote told about the narrator’s father and uncle, and how they were locked in a room with a cobra[!] and, due to how similar in appearance they were, no one was entirely certain which one of them came out alive. The concept of multiple selves is, of course, familiar to all of us, but especially those who have an interest in mental illness. Not only are there conditions such as bipolarity, but split personalities and schizophrenia too.
It is also worth focusing, briefly, on the structure, for I was impressed by the way Hedayat brought together the two halves of his novel. The first half is, as I noted previously, a rather confusing, melodramatic story of lost love, involving a woman who may or may not have existed. The second half then goes on to explain, or give the impression of explaining, the events that take place in the first, in a more realistic, or believable, manner. Initially, this irritated me, for it felt a little like a magician performing an impressive trick, then showing you exactly how it was done. However, as I progressed further into the second half it became apparent that the explanation was, in fact, no more credible than the horror-fantasy in the first half.
“We are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.”
I want to continue, I want to write about mummy and daddy issues, Freud, and the psycho-sexual, but this is a book review, a long book review already, and it cannot, if I hope to have any readers, be allowed to mutate into a dissertation. However, before I finish I am going to touch upon the translation. I have actually tried to read The Blind Owl a number of times, abandoning it on each of these occasions somewhere around 20-30 pages in, and only recently saw it through to the end. My reservations previously were all related to the quality of the prose, specifically how overwrought it is [although I should point out that the second half is much less so].
Open the book at any point within the first thirty pages, and read a page and you will find a plethora of examples. Fearful abyss! Immense eyes! Profound darkness! Accursed trees!! The first part is so saturated with this sort of thing that it is, at times, amusing, rather than, as you would imagine was the intention, exciting or unnerving. You will notice, also, how almost every word, every noun or verb, is qualified or modified in some way with an adverb or adjective, which is something that I generally associate with bad writing. All screams are bloodcurdling, all glances are penetrating, and so on. Moreover, I was struck by how old-fashioned the language was for a book that was published in 1937, such that it almost felt like a pastiche [alas].
I did wonder whether these flaws could be attributed to a shoddy translation. The copy I own was translated by D.P. Costello, a man who was, as the name suggests, not Iranian himself, and who, I think I am right in saying, was not considered an expert in the language. With this in mind, I sought out the most recent translation by Naveed Noori, who claims, as is always the way, that his version is more accurate. Well, more accurate it might be, but it is also clunky and sometimes near unintelligible. Compare the opening paragraphs:
“There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker. It is impossible to convey a just idea of the agony which this disease can inflict. In general, people are apt to relegate such inconceivable sufferings to the category of the incredible. Any mention of them in conversation or in writing is considered in the light of current beliefs, the individual’s personal beliefs in particular, and tends to provoke a smile of incredulity and derision.” [Costello]
“In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude—This agony can not be revealed to anyone, because they generally tend to group this incomprehensible suffering with strange and otherwise rare events, and if one speaks or writes about it, then people, by way of popular perception and their own beliefs, receive it with a doubtful and mocking smile.” [Noori]
Yes, the Costello one is archaic, suggesting a brooding 19th century count, in a dark and windy castle somewhere, contemplating the state of his soul over a snifter of brandy, but it is nevertheless poetic, smooth and readable. This is the perennial problem with modern translators, which is to say that their work tends to be faithful, on a word-by-word basis, but they have seemingly no idea about, or interest in, how English sentences are actually constructed, or how to make them pleasing to the eye or ear. Indeed, reading them is like dancing with someone who has conscientiously learnt all the steps, but lacks grace of movement. So while Costello’s melodrama isn’t perfect, and it may be a bastardised version of Hedayat’s novel, I still greatly favour it over a version that reads as though it is the product of google translate.