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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Blind Owl

Sadegh Hedayat

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Title: The Blind Owl
Author: Sadegh Hedayat
Genre: Novel
Written: (1941-2) (Eng. 1957)
Length: 130 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: The Blind Owl - US
The Blind Owl - UK
The Blind Owl - Canada
La chouette aveugle - France
Die blinde Eule - Deutschland
La civetta cieca - Italia
El búho ciego - España
  • Perisan title: بوف کور
  • Translated by D.P. Costello
  • The new (2010) Grove edition comes with an Introduction by Porochista Khakpour
  • There have been several other translations of The Blind Owl, including Iraj Bashiri's (1974)
  • The Blind Owl has been filmed several times, including by Kiumars Derambakhsh (1975) and by Raoul Ruiz, as La chouette aveugle, in 1990.

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Our Assessment:

A- : fascinating but opaque

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 3/3/1958 Alfred Leo Duggan

  From the Reviews:
  • "The publisher explains that the original was written in a striking form of demotic Persian, in which colloquial words take the place of standard literary phrases; D.P.Costello has translated it into literary English, so that this particular effect is lost. For the rest, even reviewers are not infallible. Each reader must decide for himself whether the Emperor has in truth found a splendid set of new clothes, or whether he is parading naked." - Alfred Leo Duggan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Blind Owl is a dream of death. A violent book, of a savage eroticism, where time is an abyss whose contents come gushing back in deadly vomit. A book of opium." - Mathias Énard, in Compass

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Blind Owl is the foremost work of twentieth-century Iranian fiction and remains tremendously influential, a Kafka in a literature that, while very rich, has no towering counter-balance such as a Mann, Hesse, or Musil. Without a clear 'plot' and often hallucinatory, The Blind Owl is also anything but a lucid text or story. The writing ranges from the incantatory to the raw; there's no doubt, too, that much is lost in translation. (D.P.Costello's 1957 translation is a valiant and interesting effort, but it's high time someone had another go at this (if only to try a completely different approach).)
       The Blind Owl begins darkly:

     There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.
       Much of this work of fiction is like a spreading sore, the pain it causes sharp and relentless, dulled only by the fog of opium and dream which makes it bearable. There are five parts to the novel, the first, third, and closing chapters very short, the other two far more elaborate. While narrated in the first person, there is no unified account here. Eventually he observes:
     However, in order to explain my life to my stooping shadow, I am obliged to tell a story. Ugh ! How many stories about love, copulation, marriage and death already exist, not one of which tells the truth ! How sick I am of well-constructed plots and brilliant writing !
       The Blind Owl, though well-constructed, subverts traditional plot; Hedayat's writing, too, is meant to challenge conventional 'brilliant' use of language (though, again, that's hard to fully get in the translation). The narrator does describes scenes from his life, ranging from singular impressions that haunt him, as in the brilliant vision of a great beauty offering an old man a morning glory that he sees while peering through a small hole in the wall, to more extended descriptions of his loveless marriage or his parents (including the outrageous test his mother demanded his father and his father's twin-brother subject themselves to). Much passes in a sort of distanced reverie: he is hardly a man of action, unable to impose even the slightest will on his wife, who sleeps around with everyone else, unable to come any closer to the great beauty that haunts his imagination. Tellingly, even the aperture in the wall through which he saw the indescribably beautiful girl disappears, blocking him off entirely from his vision.
       The narrator seeks escape:
     From the bottom of my heart I desired to surrender myself to the sleep of oblivion. If only oblivion were attainable, if it could last forever, if my eyes as they closed could gently transcend sleep and dissolve into non-being and I should lose consciousness of my existence for all time to come, if it were possible for my being to dissolve in one drop of ink, in one bar of music, in one ray of colored light, and then these waves and forms were to grow and grow to such infinite size that in the end they faded and disappeared -- then I should have attained my desire.
       He falls back on "the wonder-working drug" opium, which offers some release:
My thoughts acquired the subtlety and grandeur which only opium can confer and I sank into a condition between sleep and coma.
       It is a temporary respite, of course, and doesn't go nearly far enough: what he is comforted by is "the prospect of oblivion after death", a vacuum that, finally, won't need be filled. As to the conventional alternative: "The thought of an after-life frightened and fatigued me."
       Other escapes, before that final one can be reached, include the painting of the same motif on pen-boxes -- his occupation at the beginning of the novel -- and the attempt: "to vent on paper the horrors of my mind", as he acknowledges:
     It would seem that the behavior, thoughts, aspirations and customs of the men of past ages, as transmitted to later generations by the medium of such stories, are among the essential components of human life. For thousands of years people have been saying the same words, performing the same sexual act, vexing themselves with the same childish worries. Is not life from beginning to end a ludicrous story, an improbable, stupid yarn ? Am I not now writing my own personal piece of fiction ? A story is only an outlet for frustrated aspirations, for aspirations which the story-teller conceives in accordance with a limited stock of spiritual resources inherited from previous generations.
       This issue of transmission is one that figures throughout the novel, from the single image of a girl offering a flower of morning glory to a handing on from one generation to the next. Tellingly, the narrator is not even sure who his father is -- his father or his uncle -- and, similarly, his wife (a woman who is his foster-sister, and whom he winds up marrying in large part because of her resemblance to his aunt (though he is, in fact "forced to marry her")) sleeps with many other men but not him, preventing any family and next generation from properly developing: throughout, conventional transmission is thwarted, leaving the narrator spinning in his odd circles.
       At the beginning the narrator admits:
My one fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself.
       His account is an attempt at reaching self-knowledge -- "Life is nothing but a fiction, a mere story", after all, so perhaps if he can tell the right story the right way he'll find the sought-after insight. As such, The Blind Owl is a tortured but brave experiment: Hedayat seems to try it all and, on its own terms, most of it meets with success.
       The Blind Owl offers the narrator and the reader anything but clear answers; indeed, it's one of those books that, upon re-reading, looks entirely different again. The Blind Owl is well worth engaging with (at length, even), but anything but straightforward.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 November 2010

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The Blind Owl: Reviews: The Blind Owl - the films: Sadegh Hedayat: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat (صادق هدایت) was born in 1903 and committed suicide in 1951.

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