1930s Books in Translation

The Blind Owl – Sadegh Hedayat

Translated from the Persian by D.P. Costello

I was sorting through my bookshop stock when that beautiful picture of an owl caught my attention. I decided that I had to read it when I saw that it was also described as:

a deeply haunting and disturbing gem of world literature.

At only 108 pages it was a very quick read, but I’m not sure that I fully understood what was happening.

The author, Sadegh Hedayat, was born in Iran in 1903, but dedicated his life to the study of Western literature. His books are are now banned in Iran and are coming under increased attack from political Islamists in Europe.  He suffered from drug addiction and alcohol problems and committed suicide in 1951.

I think that an understanding of the author’s situation is key to realising the importance of this novella. It is a dark book, filled with thoughts on violence and death. It has a hallucinatory feel, so I found it difficult to grasp what was happening at all times. The book seemed to float from one scene to another, with no real plot.

The writing was poetic, and there were some beautiful descriptions hidden amongst the dark thoughts:

The sun, sucking with a thousand mouths, was drawing the sweat of my body. The desert plants looked, under the great, blazing sun, like so many patches of turmeric. The sun was like a feverish eye. It poured its burning rays from the depth of the sky over the silent, lifeless landscape. 

I also loved discovering some of the Persian traditions and it has inspired me to find out more about Iranian culture, but I’m afraid that the negatives of this book far outweighed the positives. It was dark, gruesome and impossible to follow. I felt that some of the scenes were there just to cause outrage and controversy, but perhaps they were just an indication of the authors depressive state. Either way this wasn’t an enjoyable read.

Recommended to people who like weird, depressing books with no plot!


Have you heard of The Blind Owl before?

Do you enjoy dark, weird books like this?

Can you recommend a more positive book about Iranian culture?

39 replies on “The Blind Owl – Sadegh Hedayat”

I like dark books, but there is a fine line between being dark and descriptive and being too complicated to follow the thread. Sounds like an interesting insight into Persian culture though. Lovely cover too, as you say – those piercing eyes are quite spooky!

Novel Insights, I don’t mind dark books, but this one contained a bit too much graphic violence and the weird way it moved from one event to the next meant that I didn’t really understand why things were happening. It was like one long drug induced trip, making no sense at all!

Okay, weird and depressing I can take, but I usually need a plot! Unfortunately that extract didn’t really grab me. This looks like one I could try from the library instead of buying.

I’ve heard of this, but from what you say, it sounds too confusing to read! I recently read Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story, which is about a writer who is trying to write a romance that will be able to get by the censors. It’s got a bit of (but not too much) magical realism, and I think it was done very well indeed. Or there’s always Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is nonfiction and beautifully written.

Jenny, I have seen Censoring an Iranian Love Story around – I’ll have to see if I can get a copy from the library.

I wasn’t a fan of Reading Lolita in Tehran – I didn’t manage to finish it, but I think that might be because I haven’t read Lolita, so didn’t get most of the references!

Simon, I don’t think that the translation was the problem in this case. Each paragraph made sense, it was just the way it shifted from one scene to the next in a dream like way. Nothing ever seemed real, just snippets of violent thoughts and sex. Far too dark for me.

I am so curious now what the modicum of plot is that I looked it up on Amazon- that gave me some idea, but still not very clear. The only book close to it in strangeness that I’ve tried is Pincher Martin by William Golding- but it was so confusing I gave up.

I just checked the Amazon description:

“Written in Persian, The Blind Owl is predominantly a love story, an unconventional love story that elicits visions and nightmare reveries from the depths of the reader’s subconscious. A young man, an old man and a beautiful young girl perform, as if framed within a Persian miniature, a ritual of destruction as gradually the narrator, and the reader, discover the meaning hidden within the dreams. This unforgettable story contains a unique blend of the mystery of the Arabian Nights and an acutely contemporary sense of panic and hallucination.”

I think that does sum it up well, but I got very little of the love story when I read it – unless your definition of love it dreaming about killing each other!!

I haven’t heard of Pincher Martin, but it sounds as though I should avoid it!

I haven’t heard of this one. I was once reading a novella which even after completeing, I wasn’t sure what the author was trying to convey.I am not so sure I can handle a weird book. we read books to relax to enjoy to learn something new , now if I would not understd what the author has tried to convey then ,I am sure there would be no fun reading.

Shona, This one sounds similar. It was so dark and violent that I don’t know what people get from reading it. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the author committed suicide, but unless you are studying suicide I don’t think you gain anything from reading this book.

Dear jackie. if you didn’t get the book, it doesn’t seem okay to criticize it this way, it may be really hard to follow but i believe that it can be for a lot of reasons such as: cultural differences, traditions and even translation. This is a kind of story that you will get it if you had a little same experiences of what the writer had, and of course its not for having Fun! if there wasn’t any point in it it wouldn’t become the most enduring work of 20th century in Iran.

mari, I completely agree that cultural differences, traditions and translation could have led to me failing to enjoy this book. I hope that I have managed to explain exactly why I didn’t enjoy reading this dark, complex book. That doesn’t mean that others can’t appreciate it – especially those with the patience to study the symbolism, but I don’t enjoy some of the most important books in Western culture either. For me reading has to be about fun and I’m afraid this book failed to provide me with any.

well I absolutely got what you are saying, since you want to enjoy what you read, then I agree that ‘Boofe Koor’ is just not that type of book. How ever Some one may enjoy it any way… 😉

This is probably a book I would be interested to try if I read about the author’s background. However, based on your review it is not one I would be adding to my TBR list. I have not heard of the book before your review!

Kathleen, The cover of the book and the blurb made this one sound really appealing. It is a shame that it was so weird and dark. At least you have one less book to add to the pile now though!

You know, I saw this somewhere and wanted to read it, but my library didn’t have it which send me into a sulk. I’m glad to hear you didn’t enjoy it, lol.

Wierd and depressing with no plot? No way, Jose. I don’t mind a little bit of weird, and I’ve read my share of depressing without too much brain damage, but all three would just irritate me that I wasted my time!

mee, I’d love to know why people enjoy reading this book. It is just disturbing to me.

That suicide challenge is one I’ll be avoiding – but I’ve probably read enough books to complete it this year!

Call me warped if you must (!), but there’s something beautiful about melancholy. It’s like the song, Mad World. I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but, it’s one of the saddest songs ever, and I can’t stop myself from listening to it – even on a day when the sun is shining, and I’m as pleased as the cat that ate the canary! The lyrics go: I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad, but the dreams in which I’m dying, are the best I’ve ever had.

Or, it’s like a wilted flower – there’s something hauntingly beautiful about it.

Maybe, for me, it’s just a reminder as to how terrible things can be. Or maybe, it’s perverse, as I know I’m not undergoing any of that in my life. I really can’t explain it, but, I do believe that with sadness comes great wisdom, and elegiac elegance*, which cannot be matched by happy-go-lucky.

*that is officially my best alliteration this month!

anothercookiecrumbles, I love the song Mad World, but I don’t think of books in the same way as that sort of music. I’d love for you to read this book and let me know your thoughts on it. I don’t have a problem with sad books, as I agree that you can learn a lot from them (about how much to appreiciate the life we have for example) but this one seemed to be worshipping violence and I didn’t get any pleasure from reading about a mad man thinking up various ways to kill his lover.

Please read it and explain it for me.

We ran a series on translated literature last summer, Translated Tuesday, and my blog partner and I both found a lot of the works we read alienating. She felt like it was because the book was translated, that it felt a step away. I disagreed, I think I lot of the work we read would have been dark and alienating even if written in English. I don’t mean to dump all foreign literature in a group, two of the best things I’ve read in years were translated from French (The Elegance of the Hedgehog and an excerpt from The Lady in White, whole book not out yet).

Kim, I don’t think that the fact this book is in translation has anything to do with it – there are dark depressing books in all languages and there are also great, uplifting books written around the world too.

I still haven’t read EThe legance of the Hedgehog yet – I need to get round to that soon!

I read this book more than 10 times and still suffering of not knowing all the meaning behind it…Hedayat was strongly under the influence of early 20 century Psychoanalysis papers published by Froyd and Otto Rank such as sexual trauma, existential anxiety, defence mechanism, ego psychology, or object relation theory…the similarieties between Bogam Dassi, his wife, and the picture on the pod, or his fother, uncle, homeless old guy, and bucher indicate these characters are all part of hisown (Hedayat) even-like characteristics as you see there are numerous even numbers to show this 2 sides: 2 months and 2 days, 2 brothers, etc…so these are all in relation of 2 things: “the fear of life and the fear of death” published by Otto Rank in 1914…also “the Double” (Dostvosky) and “Don Juan” both describe the concepts of someone’s Shadow as it exists through someone”s life!!!

Amir, It is quite reassuring to know that you’ve read this book 10 times and still don’t fully understand it! Thanks for the information about the significance of the number 2 – I would never have picked up on that.

There has been so much propaganda about this novella. Mr. Ajoodani’s biased interpretation of the novel has added to the passion of reading it. The fact that this novella is hard to understand may be due to the very problematic nature of the narration. There is no outstanding meaning in The Blind Owl. However, there are some lexical and syntactic patterns in the narration which contribute to the cohesion of the structure. The narration attempts to convey the long process of a dream seethed from a diseased mind. Hedayat’s few short stories deserve appreciation.

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