The Blind Owl

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Read 08/02/2016

Rating: 4 stars

Read for the Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challeng

I had read various things about this book that left me with a feeling of trepidation about reading it. It apparently has a reputation for encouraging suicide. Some consider its portrayal of women to be misogynistic. It deals with madness, drug addiction and murder in violent terms.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but I did. It reminded me of the passages in Crime and Punishment where we experience Raskolnikov’s delirium. The repetition and nightmarish quality also made me think of Kafka.

The narrator is unreliable. From the start he tells us that he is an opium addict and an alcoholic. The story he tells is disjointed, jumbled, part hallucination, and it’s never clear whether any of it is true, because we never hear from anyone else.

As a testimony of someone who is severely mentally ill, it is compelling. The narrator is imprisoned inside his own mind, and in the story he tells this is represented by the room in which he is quarantined during an illness that seems to start when his adoptive mother dies. From the experience of viewing her body all his paranoia stems.

He believes his wife to be unfaithful, but I’m not convinced he really has a wife. He refers to her as a whore because he believes she forced him to have intercourse with her alongside her dead mother’s body. He is obsessed with the butcher’s shop across the street, and tells us that he killed his wife having witnessed the butcher slaughtering sheep. He relates a family history that is part ancient myth, explaining that he doesn’t know who his father is. His hallucinations recur around the vision of a young girl he believes to be his wife but also his mother, dancing for a peddler that he believes is his father and uncle and his wife’s father and a beggar in the street.

The narration reads to me like mania, the ravings of someone who believes the things their corrupted mind is telling them about the people around them. The narrator’s conviction that his wife is unfaithful made sense to me, in relation to his mental illness. I didn’t think it was misogyny. For that to be true, the narrator would have to clearly state that all women were whores. His delusion only makes him believe that of his wife. He is not coherent in his narration. His mind is a jumble tipped out onto the page. His delusion is what dictates his violent actions, including what we see as the rape and murder of his wife, but that he only sees as her accidental killing in a moment he doesn’t fully remember happening.

Perhaps the translation I read is different to the one most often discussed online. I read the 75th anniversary edition translated by Naveed Noori and authorised by the Sadegh Hedayat Foundation. The claim of the translator is that his is most true to meaning, based as it is on the earliest known manuscript and not on later, possibly corrupt, editions. He claims to have retained the sense of frenzy from the original, whereas other translators have favoured narrative flow and inadvertently made the narrator seem a more reasonable man. I might seek out the Costello translation from 1957 for comparison.

I have no idea whether Hedayat intended the book to be an allegory for Persia/Iran under Reza Shah. I have no cultural reference points to recognise any allusions Hedayat made in the text (although the footnotes helped at times). I have no idea whether Hadayat himself was mentally ill. I read the book purely as a story and I do know that The Blind Owl is one of the most interesting treatments of mental illness in fiction that I have read.
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