Monday, October 23, 2017

The Blind Owl

(The Blind Owl is a difficult book to describe after only one reading, and Sadegh Hedayat's reputation would make such an idea seem foolish, but I've never been noted for wisdom.)

I had long considered J. G. Ballard's Crash the most obsessive book I've read, but The Blind Owl sinks even further down its own spiral. Like a gallery of mirrors in an echo chamber, the story presents the same phrases and fears and tableaux in a loop, yet offers each repetition as if it were an unexpected, unprecedented encounter. By referring back endlessly to the same places, actions, and hand gestures, it conveys the sense of one person stuck in his own head without escape. And this person is very much alone: everyone else in the story could almost be, and might very well be, a reflection or projection of his own diseased mind.

Unlike Crash, a relentlessly physical book, The Blind Owl prefers the metaphysical, with long passages of introspection detached from the wind or the rain or the sunlight:

"Idle thoughts! Perhaps. Yet they torment me more savagely than any reality could do. Do not the rest of mankind who look like me, who appear to have the same needs and the same passions as I, exist only in order to cheat me? Are they not a mere handful of shadows which have come into existence only that they may mock and cheat me? Is not everything that I feel, see and think something entirely imaginary, something utterly different from reality?"

Every now and then, the book rises from the fog of generalities to point at specific details, and I latched onto these moments with gratitude:

"Lying in this damp, sweaty bed, as my eyelids grew heavy and I longed to surrender myself to nonbeing and everlasting night, I felt that my lost memories and forgotten fears were all coming to life again: fear lest the feathers in my pillow should turn into dagger blades or the buttons on my coat expand to the size of millstones; fear lest the bread-crumbs that fell to the floor should shatter into fragments like pieces of glass; apprehension lest the oil in the lamp should spill during my sleep and set fire to the whole city; anxiety lest the paws of the dog outside the butcher’s shop should ring like horses’ hoofs as they struck the ground; dread lest the old odds-and-ends man sitting behind his wares should burst into laughter and be unable to stop; fear lest the worms in the footbath by the tank in our courtyard should turn into Indian serpents; fear lest my bedclothes should turn into a hinged gravestone above me and the marble teeth should lock, preventing me from ever escaping; panic fear lest I should suddenly lose the faculty of speech and, however much I might try to call out, nobody should ever come to my aid...."

But then the book retreats again to its metaphysical corner:

"What life I had I have allowed to slip away -- I permitted it, I even wanted it, to go -- and after I have gone what do I care what happens? It is all the same to me whether anyone reads the scraps of paper I leave behind or whether they remain unread forever and a day. The only thing that makes me write is the need, the overmastering need, at this moment more urgent than ever it was in the past, to create a channel between my thoughts and my unsubstantial self, my shadow, that sinister shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the light of the oil lamp in the attitude of one studying attentively and devouring each word I write. This shadow surely understands better than I do. It is only to him that I can talk properly. It is he who compels me to talk. Only he is capable of knowing me. He surely understands.... It is my wish, when I have poured the juice -- rather, the bitter wine -- of my life down the parched throat of my shadow, to say to him, 'This is my life'."

For me, a story like this one thrives or dies on the quality of its prose. In its original Persian, The Blind Owl might be a masterpiece, but in D. P. Costello's translation, reading the book feels like tracing a finger through dust. Drifting and twisting in sunbeams, dust can fascinate, but here, the dust lies as heavy as the earth on a coffin.

For those who ponder dusty coffins, this book might gleam like a cemetery star. For me, it reveals the power and the weakness of repetition. For you, who knows? You have only one way to find out.

-- Sadegh Hedayat, The Blind Owl, translated by D. P. Costello.
John Calder, London, 1957.

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