Sadeq Hedayat was a non-conformist in every respect
By Homa Katouzian
February 21, 2002
Hedayat: Life and legend of an Iranian writer by Homa Katouzian (I.B. Taurus,
2000). Katouzian is an assosiate member of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Oxford
University, and honorary research fellow at the Department of Politics, Exeter University.
Sadeq Hedayat was born in 1903 and died in 1951. In the first half of the twentieth
century much happened in Persian literature and Hedayat played no small part in it.
He began writing while he was still at school and in this period published two booklets,
Khayyam's Quatrains and Man and Animal, which provide
an indispensable insight into his views and psychology at the time, and an invaluable
source for understanding his late life and work.
Apart from his scholarship in Persian folklore and the Pahlavi language, Hedayat
has displayed in his fictional writing as many dimensions as he himself had in real
life. Therefore his works may be neatly classified into four distinct categories.
Hedayat's claim to fame rests on more than The
Blind Owl. However, this book is only the climax of a whole group of writings
in which the author's own personality is most authentically projected. This group
of his works, of which The Blind Owl is the masterpiece, may be designated
as his psycho-fiction. This term is merely intended as a shorthand notation
for the purpose of identifying this category of his fictional works, and it is so
constructed in order to emphasize not just the psychological but all the subjective
and psychic elements, including the philosophical and the ontological, which are
intricately bound up to present a distinct attitude to human existence.
Thus, one of the characteristics
of these works is their essential concern with abstract and universal, as opposed
to concrete and parochial, issues. Any body of abstract and universal ideas communicated
through fiction is inevitably dressed up in the cultural and linguistic garb in which
it is expressed. But, apart from that, The
Blind Owl is no more than an Iranian novel in the parochial sense
of this term than Kafak's The Trial is a specifically Czech story or Dostoevsky's
Crime and Punishment an exposure of the legal system and criminal proceedings
in nineteenth-century Russia.
Another striking feature of Hedayat's psycho-fiction is that more than any other
category of his works, it reflects the topics and issues in which the author is most
deeply involved, and with which he is passionately concerned. Indeed, if Hedayat
may be described as an engagé writer at all, then this is where his
real engagement clearly manifests itself, although the term is then not quite
appropriate for the purpose.
As regards the style of writing, modernism (particularly symbolisme and surrealism)
tend to be a hallmark of some of Hedayat's psycho-fiction, and is most evident in
The Blind Owl and the short story 'The Three Drops of Blood'. Various
combinations of surrealism and realism may be observed in other psycho-fictional
works such as the short stories 'Buried Alive', 'The Man Who Killed His Ego', 'Dark
Room', 'Dead End' and 'Stray Dog'.
The second most important category of Hedayat's works may be dubbed as his critical
realist, or pure, fiction. Here more than in any other group of his works Hedayat
appears in his role as a storyteller, a fiction writer par excellence. What
he writes is still quality fiction, not stories that are intended for entertaining
a wide readership. But the stories describe concrete personal and social events and
occurrences, and are void of any deep philosophical commitments. The short stories
'Asking for Absolution', 'The Legalizer', 'Mistress Alaviyeh' and 'The Ghouls' are
good examples of these works.
Almost all of Hedayat's realist fiction is about
the lives of ordinary urban or the lower middle class of his own time. Despite myths
to the contrary, it is not about the poor and the downtrodden. Hedayat displays no
particular sympathy for the subjects of his writing. Indeed, this is the group if
his works in which he appears most detached and dispassionate, although this does
not make him and empiricist, but a critical realist, the critical quality of whose
work is precisely shown in his methods of selection -- the subjects he chooses to
describe, and also the relative weight he decides to attach to their various aspects.
He writes about the lives of the ordinary people, but not for them.
If anything, there are frequent hints of disapproval, a lot of which falls on their
religious views and superstitious practices. Indeed, some of these critical aspects,
though largely written into the subtext, are sometimes so strong as to undermine
the realistic quality of the story, for example in the stories of 'Asking for Absolution'
and 'Mistress Alaviyeh'.
The third category of Hedayat's fictional writings is his satirical works.
Hedayat was by nature good at satire in the broad sense of the term which includes
mockery, ridicule, abuse and invective, whether in speech or in writing. He used
it almost exclusively when he wished to lash out at ruling establishments, or their
representatives, social, political or literary. Vagh-vagh Sahab (Mr. Bow Wow)
Hajji Aqa, 'The Patriot', 'The Case of the Anti-Christ's Donkey' and The
Morvari Cannon are all examples of his anti-establishment satires, using the
two distinct genres of fiction and fictionalized commentary.
Some of these works have been described as the clearest examples of Hedayat's engagé
literature. But this is not strictly correct. Engagé literature properly
refers to works behind which there is a strong social and political, indeed ideological,
purpose which the author systematically puts out as his contribution towards a given
political cause. None of these features is true of Hedayat's satire, although in
some of the works, concrete politics shows itself as well On the contrary, the most
common feature of his satirical attacks on rulers, hajjis or established literati
is the depth of his anger, frustration and disdain towards them, and the apparent
relief which he gets by thus subjecting them to mockery, ridicule and worse.
Finally, there is the small group of Hedayat's works in which his romantic nationalist
sentiments manifest themselves. These are best represented in such dramas and short
stories as Parvin the Sassanian Girl, Maziyar and 'The Last Smile', although
evidence of his romantic nationalism is also to be found in such non-fictional works
as The Melodies of Khayyam and Isfahan Half-of-the-World. Once again
there is a display of personal passion and frustration in these works. This was in
vogue among the intellectuals in the 1920s, but as soon as it became the ideology
of the state, Hedayat and many others dropped it, although some such attitude
still survived in few of his 1940s works where he is critical of religious views
In a word, his psycho-fiction is basically symbolistic and surrealistic, his pure
fiction, realistic, his drama, romantic, and his satire, allegorical. He did not
quite create a new prose style; his prose style is not entirely free from formal
errors; and the style somewhat varies, as it should, between different types of works.
Yet in a number of ways his prose is unique to himself, and this is particularly
evident form his letters.
Hedayat's sensitivity towards the plight of both 'man and animal' can be traced back
to his youth, and certainly by the time when he wrote and published an essay by the
title. His cult of death is directly and eloquently expressed in his essay on 'Death',
which he wrote when he was twenty-four. His suicidal tendency was first manifested
when he jumped into the River Marne at the age of twenty-five. By all accounts, he
was a shy, self-conscious and proud individual, who always aimed at perfection, and
these qualities are reflected both in the conduct of his life and the content of
He would not 'beg' either of women or of 'the mighty of the earth and the heavens';
he would be overjoyed with a little recognition if this was fairly and freely given
to him, but would otherwise prefer silence, solitude and suffering. The anger, resentment
and, if you will, bitterness which are betrayed by some of his letters, satire and
psycho-fiction do not stem from a native arrogance. They arise from the clash of
his subjective pride and self-esteem, on the one hand, with his objective alienation
and depravation, on the other.
He was a non-conformist in every
respect of his life. He spoke, wrote and did what he thought to be right, and was
extremely good at making enemies by breaking the (largely unwritten) family and social
rules. He was in a strict minority vis-à-vis the literary establishment, the
political establishment and the political opposition all at once, but was astonished
at their hostile reaction, because he had no ulterior motives, and felt that he was
acting with the honesty and integrity of a free soul.
This is why he complained in his letters of 'a suffocating atmosphere', 'of the shortness
of the breath', of the existence of 'a rift such that we can no longer understand
each other's language'. He was opposed to all intellectual constraints, and it did
not matter to him in whose name and under what banner or ideology they applied.
He was therefore an opposition within the opposition, an internal emigré,
a stranger in his own homeland.
Owl is not so much an attempted self-analysis as an almost self-conscious
act of self-exposure where, not the author's real life experiences, but his innermost
feelings pour out through fiction. It is in this sense that he became literature
itself, although in the end he was yearning for love, recognition, and less suffering
for what after all accounts for his genius. Literature for him was both a means of
communication and a smoke-screen behind which he tried to hide his agonizing soul,
but the more he tried the more he became engulfed by literature itself, and aloof
from the outside world.
Hedayat was an Iranian writer of his time, but he was
also a sensitive human being, the nature of whose thoughts and sufferings went well
beyond time and place. From this point of view, he may be compared, for example,
with Simone Weil, the unusual French intellectual who was his contemporary. She opposed
both Right and Left, fought in the Spanish Civil War, wrote on philosophy, politics
and society, joined the French Resistance during the war, ended up in England, and
died there of consumption (in 1943) while refusing to eat. The official verdict was
suicide. Among notes which she wrote in London, the following lines have been quoted
from a Persian poem:
Why when I am ill does none of you come to visit me
When if your slave is ill, I hurry to see him?
Cruller for me than illness is your contempt.
These lines could well have been repeated, with reference to himself, by Hedayat,
who was seldom understood or given recognition for what he was, what he did and what
he suffered for, as long as he was alive. He lived an unhappy life but left a great
legacy behind him. Perhaps the failure of his life was the price for the success
of his works.
Purchase Katouzian's Sadeq
Hedayat: Life and legend of an Iranian writer