This Book Will End Your Life: The Greatest Modern Persian Novel Ever Written

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Among the many places I was forbidden to go as a youth, was through the pages of a book that didn’t even exist in our bookshelves. We had it all: walls and walls of the apartment I grew up in in suburban Los Angeles were lined with books, Persian and English. But there was one book, a notable book, we did not have a copy of, whose absence I was soon enough made to not just feel but to crave so ardently that it almost makes sense to me why I’d end up here, of all places.

I was barely double-digits when I first heard the title Buf-i Kur. The Blind Owl—it sounded not unlike the titles of my children’s storybooks. When I inquired about it my father said it was a masterpiece of Persian literature, written before he was born. What was it about? I asked. Silence. Is it about a blind owl? Silence. Do we have it? I asked. There was something in my father’s uncharacteristic reticence that made me push further. Every few years the book would inevitably come up in conversation and I would prod, but still nothing but that same silence.

My teenage years could be characterized by obsessions with all sorts of things I knew nothing about, and The Blind Owl was no exception. I was determined to get my hands on our copy. My father, with a particularly oily smile: We have no copy. I was shocked: Why? What is the deal with this book? Have you read it? My father: Of course. Everyone in Iran has read it. The logical complaint: Then why can’t I? It was then that my father, suddenly desperately grave, told me that the reason we didn’t have a copy—the reason, if he could help it, that I would never get my hands on one as well—was that, apparently, it had caused many suicides in Iran after it was published. Silence. And, well, if you must know, the author also committed suicide.

Back then I was already knee-deep in Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Hemingway, and, hell, Kurt Cobain had just ended his life—suicide had a behemothic allure to me. This made me want it all the more.

But I was not going to get it, not for a while. And then the moment I went to college and forgot all about it, suddenly one summer break when I was home, my father brought me a copy, an English translation. He seemed embarrassed. Here. But don’t read it. Eyes downcast, fidgeting, silence. Or maybe it’s not as bad in English. I don’t know. More silence. But don’t think about it too much.

It was finally mine. For a few days I rejoiced and just stared at it on my shelf, as if it were some magical object that was best observed but barely handled. And it sat there for years. Having possession of it finally made it less desirable; knowing at any moment I could go there made it less illicit.

That was my first phase. My second phase was the one in which I wanted to read it but just couldn’t. It was no doubt the superstition about suicide. In my early twenties, I grew more and more depressive—suicide became less dazzling, more haunting—and the book felt like a loaded gun in an unlocked cabinet, as it sat there, gathering dust, unfiled, flat, virginal, in opposition to the other lovingly aged books on my bookshelf. I never took it with me to college, never took it anywhere. Periodically I would think about it and think about approaching it, but again, like something that had the power to kill or at least curse me, I stayed away. I was waiting for an era where my magical thinking would look as absurd as my father’s did to me in my sunnier youth.

It took beginning my own novel to go there. The long form, it has always seemed to me, has the power to really shelter you, keep you covered and protected for several years, and so in that era, for the first time in my life, I experienced no fear. I didn’t have confidence either, but at least I didn’t have fear. I finally picked up the book, once in my parent’s home again, and read it fast, all the way through in one sitting, as if the words were on fire, as if it would burn me if I lingered too long, the magical thinking not altogether dust just yet.

But that was only part of it. The other part was simply the content. It was the most disturbing thing I had read (and I had read many disturbing things by then; I was deeply attracted to them, in fact). But this made me feel sick for days. I thought about announcing anemically at dinner that after fifteen years of wondering, I finally knew. I had read it. But I couldn’t bring it up. I never told anyone I had read it.

I started to feel spiritless, to put it euphemistically, once the novel was done. Several brushes with bad luck had collided to create a most calcified dolor, so potent that nothing scared me, not depression, not death, nothing. In searching for my novel’s epigraph, my mind turned to, appropriately, The Blind Owl. I picked one: “I thought to myself: if it’s true that every person has a star in the sky, mine must be distant, dim, and absurd. Perhaps I never had a star.” It was in many ways an epigraph that did not suit my novel, but it certainly suited me at the moment. The most dismal side of me could think of no other author, no other work, to jinx myself with.

And then the part of me that believed I would get over this wanted everyone to know about this breathtaking novel that had, over many personal peaks and valleys, grown to mean the world to me.

And here I am again, still wishing that on everyone who has yet to touch these pages. In reading it again and again over the years, I have become more and more immune to its horror and more and more ensorcelled by its masterfulness. It is, first of all, a novel that demands countless readings; it demands that you become a student of it. As I became a novelist in my own right, I grew less afraid of its powers and more attuned to its mechanics, but I never stopped feeling wholly humbled by its profoundly radical aesthetics. And Sadegh Hedayat, who I learned more and more about, became one of my most cherished literary icons.

Which is why I was ecstatic and overwhelmed to introduce Western audiences to the new edition of D. P. Costello’s 1957 translation. Of course, my first thought was that it seemed embarrassing that I’d even be a liaison in this mission—I could imagine Hedayat rolling his eyes at me through his thick black-framed spectacles and wisecracking something along those lines. I thought of the judgment of every Iranian I knew who, without a blink of an eye, would swear ultimate allegiance to The Blind Owl. It is that type of national treasure that elicits the most indeed-blind unconditional ardor. Even if they don’t stand behind certain storyline special effects or are confounded by its many baffling twists and turns, they consider it very much theirs; Hedayat feels so much in our blood that it’s hard to remember he came to be in Iran and not the other way around.

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Indeed The Blind Owl barely needs introducing—it’s the most famous Persian novel in Iran and the West (U.S. and Europe), and Hedayat is without argument the father of Persian modernist fiction. But The Blind Owl’s revolutionary surrealism is the exception to even Hedayat’s own rules, as most of his stories are in the realist vein, often wryly comic in satiric works or resolutely nostalgic in nationalist-realist works. It is not an easy read and yet, against all odds, it is the most renowned literary work of twentieth-century Iran, unreadable to the masses, one would assume, with its opaque symbolism, corkscrewed coding, warped psychological landscape, and otherworldly thematics. But Hedayat’s prose has always been accessible in its simple style, much like Edgar Allen Poe—his closest Western kin, along with Kafka, one can argue, both of whom he held in high regard—who is often taught in American middle school. Perhaps the very prose, coupled with its fabled notoriety, has made it an essential literary hand-me-down in Iran. I’d like to think the Iranian disposition is simply more all-embracing of the experimental in art, as well as more inviting of investigations into the darkest crevices of the human soul.

But for whatever reason, it is one of Hedayat’s only forays into such horror. It is a masterpiece of what eminent Hedayat scholar Homa Katouzian calls “psycho-fiction”— that which “reflects the essentially subjective nature of the stories, which bring together the psychological, ontological, and metaphysical in an indivisible whole.” In that way it feels like his most “real” work, even in its almost mystical fabulism. It feels as if it exists independently of its author, as if it were a relic, without tangible attribution, like a holy scripture, a certain unearthly authenticity reaffirmed by the rawness of its feverish confessional tone—and parallels to Hedayat’s bio, of course. And that, of course, renders this frightening tale all the more frightening.

In the end, the book only reflects certain elements of Hedayat’s life. There is the perpetual haze of opium which, based on whatever account you subscribe to, Hedayat was an occasional dabbler or a hopeless addict. And there is, of course, Hedayat’s fascination with India—he studied Middle Persian in Bombay, where he apparently penned The Blind Owl—in the core myth of the narrative, the chilling “trial by cobra,” which the half-Indian narrator’s Hindu dancer mother, Bugam Dasi (the novel’s only named character), initiates, igniting the whole nightmare premise of story. And there is Hedayat’s vegetarianism, which he fully dedicated himself to in India, portrayed in the novel’s herbivoric undertones by the narrator’s consternation over the routine sight of a local butcher at work. And there is Hedayat’s notoriously asexual or homosexual bachelorhood—again depending on which account you subscribe to—in the novel’s sexual anxieties and impotency qualms with multiple images of stunted virility, from various stills of lascivious and yet unsatisfying elderly male lovers to ultimately the novel’s climax, which, as brilliant Hedayat scholar Michael Beard points out, is an actual climax involving a knife taking over what the organic phallus fails to fulfill.

And, of course, there is the sense of an eternally alienated outsider’s cast on the whole novel, a despair we know was definitely Hedayat’s, which likely led to his suicide by gassing himself in 1951. He carried an inconsolable loneliness in walking through the world as well as in the artistic rendering of it. Hedayat’s narrator is either representing his nightmare through painting or by confessing it through writing, but in either case he lets us know that the creative act is his way of dialoguing with his shadow. . . which Beard skillfully points out could very well be us, the audience beholding the narrator’s, as well as Hedayat’s, art.

Everything else, we could say, is a fiction, rooted in sources so entirely mysterious that indeed The Blind Owl, while feeling “real,” seems to be born of a world all its own, a tale far beyond the experience of its author, any author— certainly, luckily.

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Hedayat was thirty-three when the work was first self-published in India, its initial incarnation being fifty copies of handwritten text distributed for circulation among friends with a “not for sale in Iran” note on it, due to Hedayat’s initial discouraging encounters with Iranian censors. Iran, two and a half decades after its Constitutional Revolution, and a decade after the tail-end of the Qajar dynasty and the beginning of the Pahlavi dynasty with the establishment of Reza Shah’s reign, had experienced rapid authoritarian modernization and secularization with the British and the Russians salivating over the prospect of Iranian oil, while the Shah’s regime created invisible shackles over the masses through propaganda and censorship. This was how Iran turned Western and fast, a place where Islamic traditionalism and Western modernization were at a tug-of-war. This era of cultural crossroads heralded many decades of such awkward seesawing of old and new, tradition and progress, crises of identity of which Iran still, clearly, is deeply embroiled. For Hedayat, neither the clergy nor the monarchy held the answers, neither the common man nor the elite intelligentsia; he was at once at odds with not just his country, as many have been quick to conclude, but his era. Sadly, one could assume he’d be no better off in this era, as he would, no doubt, like myself, be an immigrant in an exile of no foreseeable end.

After serialization in the journal Iran in 1941-1942, the history of The Blind Owl has been largely a hide and seek with authority. It was published again in 1993 but censored, banned from the 18th Tehran International Book Fair in 2005, and publication rights were withdrawn as a part of a 2006 sweeping purge. But it’s a testament to the text that it has never come close to a circulation hiatus among the people.

Was it simply the gore that made it unacceptable to the establishment? I think it was its intertwining of cultural dualities, which was quintessentially more Hedayat than any other aspect of the work. Novelistic prose did not really exist in Persian before the twentieth century, and whereas the early Iranian novels were historical novels written by academics and intellectuals, this was something altogether different from even its different status as a novel. Hedayat was, after all, pretty much bicultural, and The Blind Owl, as many have declared, is in certain ways a Western novel following and even making indentations in the European tradition. Hedayat was in many ways partially French: he attended a French school, the St. Louis missionary school in Tehran; he had a state grant to study in France, and he himself claimed he was a lifelong student of French literature; he died in Paris and was buried in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery. He was as Western as he was Eastern and the same could be said for the novel—it’s truly Middle Eastern or West Asian, one could say. And this is arguably the Iranian condition or at least its modern condition, that the left and right of Iran always feared to face—a nation of constant conquest, perpetual displacement, and exile, a country of homeland seekers with a destination only in their ancient past. Hedayat could not find solace in Tehran society and yet in Paris he could not find peace either. He was the Iranian nationalist who, fed up with the corruptions of church and state alike, was perpetually looking westward; he was also the foreigner in Europe, whose daily life was endless visa applications and intense economic hardship, whose eyes were cast to the comforts of his mother country where he was of the aristocracy. And like these contradictions, so existed The Blind Owl, whose biggest challenge, one could assume, was that of audience—many Western literary references were lost on Iranian audiences and many Iranian folkloric descriptions were alien to Western readers, and yet the book held its place among both readerships. Influence spotting has led scholars all over the place, from the implausible to the certain, academics claiming Buddhist doctrine, Jung, Rilke, Poe, Sartre, and Kafka in its pages— but no matter what, no one denies the book is as Eastern and Western as it rejects both as well. One of the aspects of The Blind Owl that kept it alive for me while working on my own novel—a truly hyphenate work in that it is equally Iranian and American—was that it felt like our first truly hyphenate work, Hedayat embodying the first true Iranian immigrant, a both reluctant and ecstatic pioneer of the West.

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Porochista Khakpour (Photo by: Sunny Shokrae)

Part of the agreement in setting on the journey of a truly hybridized work is accepting its polarities. With The Blind Owl, we are taught to read a novel all over again—in its pages there exists a collection of codes, variants, repetitions, cycles . . . and there is no index, glossary, footnoting, or critical-analysis consensus even. We are left alone, very alone, to read unlike we have ever read before.

We have on one hand a Gothic romance narrative and on the other hand an expressionist whodunit allegory, both equally problematized by the innovative structure: a novel in two novellas, its twin narrative sections playing for and against each other. In Part I, our narrator is a painter whose vocation is to paint a single picture on pen cases. In Part II, there is no mention of him being an artist and instead he is the confessor, a writer telling his story to, we can assume, save whatever is left of his sanity. Interestingly, the pen case holds the tools of a writer, while the first part exists as a distorted dream recollection of the second’s summarized confession of the past. In other words, the first part is the present in the form of a dream, while the second is the past in the form of a confession—and already, the algorithm is a precarious one, no doubt.

But the dualities continue. The artist of the first part, Beard notes, is immersed in a platonic love state, given the task of representing his muse, the beautiful young woman who, like an angel, appears at his door only to die in his bed. She opens her eyes for a moment within the clasp of death, apparently so our artist can render them in his art, and then she is nothing but fodder for an exhausting burial that involves one of the novel’s many old men, a sinister hearse driver. In Part II, everything is the first part’s negative: the writer is feverish from carnal love for his cheating whore-like wife who is just a door over, holding court in her bedroom, which he, the husband, banishes himself from in favor of his tomb-like room. But what is ingenious about this simple set-up is all the multiples and recyclings and variations on not just a few finite themes but a few finite images. Beard notes the novel features the same actors playing different characters over and over. We have several old men: uncle, gravedigger, odds-and-ends man, the narrator; we have several young women as well: the woman on the pen case, the woman he spies outside the ventilation hole of his home, the angel at his door, the wife, the wife’s brother, his mother. Scenes also mirror one another, just as action and art imitate each other; the scene on the pen case reflects the scene outside the ventilation hole, which mirrors the scene on an ancient jar unearthed at the girl’s burial in the first part, which mirrors his mother’s final dance. Not only is this style simply dazzling in its innovation, it points to an opposite effect—recycled communal imagery that implies a certain paucity of the imagination or miserly economy of action or, just simply, tiring reworkings of a scenario for it’s own sake. Such rearranging, scrambling, and skewing of an already sleek novel’s minimalist furnishings is just not done in fiction, then or now or ever, we can assume. It requires, at its very least, the closest of multiple readings and, at its very most, conscientious code-breaking dissection.

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In referencing Michael Beard so many times, I think it’s important to point out he wrote perhaps the greatest study of the novel, Hedayat’s Blind Owl as a Western Novel. It inspired me to write to him and ask how he came about discovering this book. It was apparently while he was in Peace Corps training in Iran. “I had a fever the evening I read it. I had recently picked it up in the reading room and figured it might be a good companion. It was a perfect companion. Alone, late at night in an unfamiliar place I felt in tune with it. It was a seductive book even before I understood it. The memory of it lingered after we went to our sites (I was teaching high school in Rafsanjan, then a small town). In Peace Corps pedagogy you speak before you can read, and as I was slowly becoming literate in Persian, it was one of my textbooks. I began to read it slowly, with a dictionary at hand, and it became one more teacher.” Beard went on to write that when working on his dissertation on it, many years later, he “became very interested in the elegant way Hedayat rethought European traditions.”

What he concluded our exchange with interested me most, a sentiment absent from his seminal book: “Later I began to think about Hedayat in biographical terms. I have no doubt that melancholy ingrained in his character led to his suicide, but I also believe that there is an exuberance in his writing that counteracts it. The expression of melancholy is not the same thing as melancholy. It may hold melancholy at arm’s length.”

This, I think, is the key to appreciating the nightmare-scape of The Blind Owl, once you piece its puzzles, catch on to its games, and read by its rules. The prose contains an energy that reminds one that even though Hedayat was quite depressed for much of his life, he was also the man spotted holding court in various cafés in Paris and Tehran alike, always entertaining huge groups of friends and followers and everything in between. We can see in this book, as well as in all his writing, not what might be implicated in his untimely death, but what prevented it for so long. And this is why I believe no reader could, as the myth went, contemplate death at their own hands after reading it—The Blind Owl is not a triumph of story, it’s a triumph of art. It doesn’t tell you how to live or die, but it does teach you a few things about how to create. And what is more life-affirming than that?

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Only years and years after my father forbade me to read it and eventually gave in, did I understand that all the fuss might have been a personal one as well. After all, I came to see myself as not a successor or descendent even, but as a child of Hedayat—and almost literally, as my father had more than a few similarities with Hedayat. He too was an adamant Middle Persian hobbyist and Zoroastrianism enthusiast who endlessly romanticized pre-Islamic Persia to the point where the walls of our living room were entirely plastered with color-copied clippings out of Smithsonian magazine, featuring Sasanian plates and Achaemenid relief images. Plus, it was his vegetarian tendencies that made a vegetarian out of me. He was not a writer, of course, but he made one out of me. Not to mention he raised a pensive, brooding, loner kid who never felt quite at home in her imagined there or her literal here. And so, of course, it had to be him who kept me from reading it for so long.

Given the usefulness of his tactics with respect to that, I’ll then pass on what got me to these pages: refrain, reader, from reading this book, whatever you do.

You’ve been warned.

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This essay serves as the introduction to a new edition of The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat, translated from the Farsi by D.P. Costello, forthcoming from Grove/Atlantic.

Introduction copyright © 2010 by Porochista Khakpour, reprinted with the permission of the Publisher, Grove Atlantic, Inc.


Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran and raised in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice, and The Chicago Reader, among other publications around the world. She has been awarded fellowships from Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Sewanee Writers' Conference, The Ucross Foundation, and Yaddo. Her debut novel "Sons and Other Flammable Objects" (Grove/Atlantic)--a New York Times "Editor's Choice," Chicago Tribune "Fall's Best," and 2007 California Book Award winner--is out in paperback. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the College of Santa Fe. More from this author →