24. A book you’ve started but never finished: The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat
Do you need to understand something in order to like it? The internet can get into some pretty deep spirals about “plot holes” and whether a story holds together under extreme levels of scrutiny and being held to rigid rules of reality. But I think there is value in occasionally sitting back and being taken along for a ride that is not held down in that way.
The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat, published in Persian in 1936, has a plot. It does. A man (probably) kills a woman who is (maybe) his wife and then (possibly) cuts up her body and buries her. There are some events that occur in some order with a potentially set group of characters, but that is not why you read The Blind Owl. You read The Blind Owl for the wandering, cyclical, repetitive and spiraling path that gets you to those points. It is almost all stylization and crafting and poetry, and if you are in the right frame of mind to accept it, it is a good trip.
I tried to read this book a couple years back, at a point in time when I was not in the most positive headspace, and I stopped halfway through. Going back and reading my edition’s introduction by author Porochista Khakpour this time (presented as an essay here), it seems that this is a common reaction, and the book has developed a sort of mystique as something capable of driving a reader mad. This reputation is at least partly derived from Hedayat’s own suicide in 1951. Combine the author’s death with the head-trip narrative and the history of censorship of the novel in Iran, and you can see where the reputation comes from and why the forbidden allure is there. But the violence and delving into madness is the part of the novel I actually found least appealing. As a woman living in 2018, I have read far more than my fair share of think pieces about the tortured male psyche. The literary craftsmanship holds far more appeal and seems a lot more experimental than any musings on madness ever could.
The Blind Owl has what I would consider the best representation of dream logic in literature. The cyclical plotting, the repetition of key images and figures in an otherwise changing story, the narrator feeling ungrounded from time and space, it all captures a very ephemeral headspace that is the book’s real strength in my mind. You see attempts everywhere, but very few authors can genuinely depict madness in their prose itself.
I do not understand all of the things that happen in The Blind Owl, and that is part of the point. I am missing a fair deal of cultural and historical context that might make some parallels and signifiers more clear, but the plot of The Blind Owl is not something that can be charted out and pinned down to look for gaps and holes. It is something to experience.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, with a caveat that you need to be fairly comfortable with violence.