My shadow on the wall was exactly like an owl; hunched over, it carefully read my writings… I wanted to draw those eyes, which were now closed forever, on a piece of paper, and keep them for myself. This sensation forced me to action, that is, I did not do this voluntarily — one does not when one is imprisoned with a corpse. This very thought filled me with a special feeling of joy.1
These are the words of Sadegh Hedayat in his surrealist novel, The Blind Owl. As one of the greatest Iranian writers of the twentieth century, Hedayat pioneered literary modernism in Persian literature and novel folklore. Among numerous translations and literary works in his record, The Blind Owl, published somewhere between 1930 and 1937, has been regarded as his magnum opus and a literary achievement equal to the works of great writers like Edgar Allan Poe and contemporaneous authors such as Albert Camus, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov and Frantz Kafka. His novels, especially The Blind Owl, are considered Kafkaesque and symbolic in style with a psycho-fiction genre2. Unlike Kafka, however, Hedayat and his books are not widely known, yet they share common themes. Readers quickly notice traces of their disillusionment with society’s status quo, frustration with family members and feelings of being neglected by their loved ones. Hence, getting to know a writer with the same mindset, and his masterpiece, may appeal to the fans of Kafkaesque-style fiction.
One of the most striking aspects of stories such as The Blind Owl and The Metamorphosis is that nothing is as simple as it looks, and the reader needs to scrutinize and decode every element to comprehend what the author intended to convey in the symbolic world they created. The Blind Owl is no exception and critics have decoded it differently; reading Hedayat as an anarchist, an opponent of religion, in love with the glorious Persian Kingdom before 633 AD, or a melancholic man writing under the effect of wine and opium. Whatever the stimulant was, and regardless of criticism or admiration, the result has turned out magnificent, it traps the readers and coerces them to live in the writer’s world. The reader becomes engrossed in the story and sees no way out than to finish reading.
It is impossible to deny that the dark and disturbing3 theme of the story represents the writer’s feelings and inner world, tired of everyone and everything, trapped in his own body, room, and more astonishingly, in the black eyes of the woman in his very own paintings. Those big black eyes are beautiful, but at the same time, horrifying. He confesses his admiration yet repeatedly complains about the disturbance caused by them – the eyes that look at him ruthlessly – and the only way to get rid of them is to kill their owner: a woman in his paintings in a black dress, black hair, and big black eyes who has come to sleep in his bed, in his gloomy room. His confusion about whether the woman is alive or dead and the uncertainty to revive or kill her indicates Hedayat’s restless nature. The story goes on by getting rid of the corpse, the other dark memories he recalls about his private life, the melancholic world he sees around himself, and other dark, horrible scenes throughout the story. Moreover, throughout the whole story, the reader will not learn the names of the painter, woman, or other characters.
One may claim that there are no similarities between The Blind Owl and The Metamorphosis and that Hedayat’s narrative is a love story. Nevertheless, as I already stated, understanding these stories requires more than a cursory read. Despite their cultural and social capital disparities, Hedayat and Kafka perceived the world through the same lens. To begin with, both stories portray the main protagonists’ agony and dissatisfaction with their surroundings, from which they try to escape and find no way out other than death. In the Metamorphosis, Gregor looks hideous, is hurt, and his wounds get infected, bleed and smell foul. Similarly, in The Blind Owl, the painter sees “black thick coagulated blood” on his clothes, “wiggling worms, flies, and rats” around the woman’s decaying body, and constantly hears “the smell of dead bodies, the smell of decayed flesh.”
Furthermore, both protagonists feel betrayed, lonely, and confined. The handful of characters in both novels illustrated the writers’ isolation and constrained lives. Gregor, for one, finds himself in a new stomach-turning body, and his family soon confines him in his room to avoid disturbing the guests. Likewise, his sister betrays him and wishes for his death. Hedayat’s painter also describes his room as dark and gloomy, like a coffin. He laments about being imprisoned by his family members, who have transformed into shadows on the walls and keep staring at him. There are also the woman’s vexing big black eyes, in which “[his] life sunk.” His wife is likewise unfaithful to him. However, the restriction is increasingly apparent in Hedayat’s storyline as the narrator switches from a painter to a gravedigger, a murderer, a dead man, a dying man and an elderly person. The same happens to the other characters, making it much more unsettling and suspenseful to solve the riddle and recognize the characters in the story.
Although the theme reflects the main characters’ sense of seclusion and frustration, Gregor and the painter act differently in dealing with the situation. Gregor attempts to adjust to the new circumstances, still hoping to be recognized, but in the end death appears to be the only option to him, whilst the painter desires to get rid of that nightmare. Nevertheless, they both are sentenced to life literally and find absolute freedom in embracing death. Thus, death is not a bleak reality in their world. It is a means of liberty.
These are only a few examples from those engrossing symbolic masterpieces. However, readers’ interpretations and reviews of the story may differ when it comes to literature. Good books must be read anyway, since they are the gateways to new worlds, food for thought and wings of imagination. Sadegh Hedayat’s novels, translations, articles, plays and travelogues have long been sources of inspiration for authors and novelists. The Blind Owl may also open doors to new worlds by allowing readers to see realities, not through the eyes of others but through their own wide-open eyes... who knows!
1 Hedayat S., The blind owl, English translation, 1974.
2 A term Homa Katouzian, an Oxford university professor and literary critic, uses to refer to Hedayat’s stories.
3 The term Jeffry Mishlove expressed in describing the theme of the novel in his interview with philosopher and author Jason Reza Jorjani.