The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What started out to be a slow book found its pace and took off about a quarter of the way in. Normally this sluggish start would knock a star off my rating for the book, but the remainder was so fantastic it made up for the beginning. At first, I found the narration fairly clean and clear, somewhat akin to Calvino's prose, but with too much treacle and self-absorbed whining. Before long, however, I learned that Hedayat was merely setting a baseline that led into the narrator's more winding, abstruse voice and his even more surreal perceptions of the people around him.
One is never quite sure if the narrator's opium dreams give him relief from his own unreality or whether it is because of his distorted perceptions and feelings about reality lead the narrator to escape into narcosis. Dreams, opiate-laden and "sober," are so interlaced with the narrator's version of reality that the work is phantasmagoric throughout.
Hedayat captures these fever-dream meanderings and conveys their feeling to the reader by effectively using a sort of literary call-and-response that revisits events and insights with very slight variations that simultaneously move the reader along and tie the book together. Note that I did not say "move the plot along". "Plot," in The Blind Owl is a slippery thing. Events come and go and come again in slightly different form and with one character's visage projected onto another's to the point that there is little in the way of linear plot. If you're a stickler for clear beginning, middle, and end, this book is not for you. If, however, you want to become lost in another world, this definitely is for you.
One example of this call-and-response is found in the narrator's journey in a horse-drawn hearse. As the driver sets off, the narrator reports:
The whip whistled through the air; the horses set off, breathing hard. The vapour could be seen through the drizzling rain, rising from their nostrils like a stream of smoke. They moved with high, smooth paces. Their thin legs, which made me think of the arms of a thief whose fingers have been cut off in accordance with the law and the stumps plunged into boiling oil, rose and fell slowly and made no sound as they touched the ground. The bells around their necks played a strange tune in the damp air.
After the hearse driver has dropped off his passenger, he leaves:
With surprising nimbleness he sprang up and took his place on the driver's seat. The whip whistled through the air, the horses set off, breathing hard. The bells around their necks played a strange tune in the damp air. Gradually they disappeared into the dense mist.
And again, a few pages later, he encounters the hearse driver again:
The old man sprang up with surprising nimbleness and took his place on the driver's seat . . . The whip whistled through the air; the horses set off, breathing hard. They moved with high, smooth paces. Their hoofs touched the ground gently and silently. The bells around their necks played a strange tune in the damp air. In the gaps between the clouds the stars gazed down at the earth like gleaming eyes emerging from a mass of coagulated blood. A wonderful sense of tranquility pervaded my whole being.
This layered referencing continues, in many guises, throughout the book, lending it that quality of dream that leaves one confused, upon waking, as to when certain events took place and in what context.
Hedayat also portrays a back-and-forth emotional state within the narrator himself. In one paragraph, he experiences "a kind of agreeable giddiness," while in the next, his "heart was filled with trepidation," with no change in circumstance other than that of the narrator's emotional state of mind.
One feeling that is consistent throughout, however, is the feeling of shame experienced by the narrator, along with a paranoid reaction to laughter, as if anyone who laughs is mocking him. In fact, one gets the sense that the narrator feels mocked by life, and death, itself. The Blind Owl is undergirded by a strange form of existentialism that embraces fear of, and hope for, the oblivion of death.
Throughout our life death is beckoning us. Has it not happened to everyone suddenly, without reason, to be plunged into thought and to remain immersed so deeply in it as to lose consciousness of time and place and the working of his own mind? At such times one has to make an effort in order to perceive and recognise again the phenomenal world in which men live. One has been listening to the voice of death.
Ten years after the serialized publication of the book, the author committed suicide. I am not privy to the author's internal struggles and am not familiar with his emotional landscape, but I can see the seed of his suicide in this work. In fact, the forward notes that many in Iran who read this work themselves committed suicide. Like so many other books, this is not for the emotionally unstable. This is not a happy book and, in fact, it might even be categorized as "horror" on par with Brian Evenson's dark literature. The seemingly unending river of nightmare sequences in The Blind Owl are reminiscent of scenes from a David Lynch or Brothers Quay film. Frankly, I'm surprised that they haven't tried to do a film version, as their style would be perfect for the dark ouvre of this book.
So now you have fair warning. If you really enjoy the first 30 pages or so of the book, stop. Don't go any further. But if you are intrigued by the grim promise that this book holds, please don't start 30 pages in. Give yourself a chance to draw in your breath and hold it through the rest of this suffocating work. You're going to need it.
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