January 26, 2007

Women and Truth in Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl

The Blind Owl is one of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read. Its difficult to sum it up because it is so rich in symbolism and imagery. Hedayat's novel, sadly now banned in Iran his home country, is one of the masterpieces of world literature- the influences of Poe, Kafka and even Edvard Munch have been detected within its pages and the problems that it deals with are central to any individual's consciousness of the world outside themselves, of the opposite sex and of their family.

The book is the ramblings of a madman through his perceptions of the world- everything that you read within the Blind Owl is filtered through the dreams of a drunk opium addict's mind. You have no sense of time- because he has no sense of time. You have no real sense of space- because he has no real sense of space. You have no sense whether any of the events described have happened- indeed events are repeated- moments seem to come back up through the text and repeat endlessly. The madman we know is in a room, we know he concentrates, spends hours assessing the room, knows its cracks or crannies. The room itself becomes a metaphor for the experience of living within his own head- it becomes used to describe the silence of a tomb and to describe the interior of a mind. What Hedayat does is to take you inside the mind of a madman, and transfuse the narrative with the point of view of that madman.

Seeing the world through the eyes of the mentally unstable questions the very notion of seeing the world itself. Hedayat gets us to recognise the way that our ideas of beauty and our thoughts about the world intermesh with previous ideas and thoughts that we have had. The madman imagines that he is timeless in the sense that he carries within himself the memories of all Iranian civilisation- in reality he refers seldom to history save for the fact that he uses the idea of a mythical city in the past to refer to a time of sanity. But he is transfused with memories- this is life lived through memory- so that a scene- the gesture of a young girl stripping off her dress having fallen in the water, to bite her fingernail becomes a motif of a desire, of a need and of the way that that need can never be fulfilled. Our madman sees the world and tries to put it down on paper, in the form of the memoirs that the novel attempts to be, and on clay, he is by profession a pottery painter who paints only one scene, a girl offering an old man some flowers.

Its very easy to see the sexual relations underlying our narrator's thought processes here- women lie across rivers, are perceived through the slits in walls, are screened, cut off. The only two actual women he mentions with praise are dead- and as he tells us the story of how his father/uncle (he doesn't know which is alive as they looked so alike) a beautiful woman is something that you see displayed before you and then that you suffer for. Our narrator informs us that he has not, since their wedding, physically touched his wife- at the end of the novel he finally does have sex only to slay the woman that he has sex with and to write about sex in such a way as that it to is an imprisonment. Indeed there is a sense in the writing that women have to be ethereal or else they threaten to drag men into an earthy world of excretion- the wife whom he hates is continually described in terms of her pregnancy- her fertile body is a thing to criticise. Our narrator constantly suggests to us that he is above the bodily functions that obsess normal men- being above earthly love he soars, he thinks, to the pains of spiritual infatuation.

A feminist critique might stop there- but I don't think we should- I think there is more to say here about the way he thinks of women and the way that that relates to the way he thinks about truth. Our narrator is a man whose relationship with truth is uncertain- he is an artist and what we see throughout the novel is the way that he understands his own life through the use of motif. Everything suggests everything else, conditions everything else- to take an example every object of sexual desire in the novel, from his wife, to the woman he spies through the crack in the wall, to his mother dancing before his father, has the same kind of Turkoman eyes. Even his wife's small brother whom he kisses in a moment of semi-paedophilic aesthetic admiration has those eyes. Equally he evaluates maleness by a recurred motif- that of the ugly, old, withered corpse that by the end of the tale he himself has become.

Describing himself at one point as a God, there is a sense in which the narrator fashions his narrative. Everything is interpreted through his eyes- if you go back through the novel and read the very few conversations that are reported you see them at a corner, amplified through a perception of what people should have said and then repeated so as to make the conversation unsettling. His search for the truth, which the novel declares itself to be, a search for the truth about himself turns into a journey along a circle whereby every time he imagines his life, he recomposes it of the same images. Like a writer with an alphabet, our narrator builds his life out of a series of stock images.

There is much more here to describe and I mean to return to this book in other articles- capturing a great novel like this in a few words isn't possible- but this is a great novel. What Hedayat does and you can see it both in the discussion of sex and in the discussion of truth is that he fashions a novel which is profoundly unsettling because it shows how self reinforcing all our notions are. This is a narrator who objectifies women, women are slates upon whom he projects his own emotional states- they don't exist, they merely reflect back the disorders of his own mind. Similarly the world and indeed his own perception of his own state reflect back his own state to himself. Self knowledge which he strives for ends up lost in a series of mirrors that merely reflect fantasy back upon fantasy.

To take you inside such a mind in such a brief book is an acheivement up there with Poe and Kafka- to perceive the hell of isolation within one's own head is to show how the narrator's madness is an endlessly coherent vision of the world. It corresponds to the way that he sees the world- and that vision is not inconsistant or inadequate in its own terms. He functions as a system of epistemology, processing new information, but never progressing and never learning.

There is much more to this novel than what I have just wrote- having put it down after a first reading my thoughts are neccessarily incomplete- there are many more themes as well- death and youth are important motifs- but I must close here with one instruction, find yourself a copy of this book, read it and tell me I'm wrong, because this is one of those great novels whose pages open up to a multiplicity of interpretations and whose words can be read and reread throughout one's life with profit.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

What an interesting and thought-provoking review. I'd not heard of the book or author but will put it on my list. Looking forward to your future articles about it.

Gracchi said...

Yeah it is quite obscure in teh English speaking world- I found it difficult to find a copy because when I went to Waterstones and Borders they all told me it was out of print so I had to get one second hand on Amazon. Mine has all these biro marks in it- someone obviously was taking notes for a course. So you might need to run around Amazon but it is worth it in the end- it is a very very good novel.

Cheers for the compliment on the review- I was wondering even my standards this was a little esoteric. But he is an author that I think everyone should get more into.

Rob said...

I agree with Limoncello - brilliant review. Really made me want to have a read.

In fact, as a result I just found a copy on Amazon and bought it (2nd hand, and being posted from the US - so let's hope it's legible!).

More literary reviews please Gracchi...

Gracchi said...

It'll be a pleasure Rob- I should charge Amazon second hand a commission on that! Glad to see you've started a blog as well- as you'll notice I've linked to it on the sidebar- however I am afraid not using the name- I'm going to have to refer to it as the Two Robbies from now on every time I cite you- incidentally old fellow if you want any help on doing things- are you on technorati, sitemeter etc- just give us a call.

Mohammad said...

I really enjoyed your review. I read the book both in Farsi and English. I guess I was lucky enough to find a brand new copy on amazon..
I think the reason that I read it twice was I was really trying to find a connection between the first part and second part of the book. I agree with you that in the first part, Hedayat was trying to have you see the world through the eyes of a madman.

Gracchi said...

Mohammad thanks very much, I always feel a bit odd reviewing something which isn't in the original language when I'm reading it so I'm glad a Farsi reader finds the review useful. Thank you for your comments.

ivona poyntz said...

Fantastic review. This underrated novel deserves way more attention than its getting. I love the way the author seems to focus on the scene with the old man, the woman in black and the cypress tree: these three images appear in different guises throughout and seem to be the focal point of the narrative

Claude said...
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