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Beyond time and place
Sadeq Hedayat was a non-conformist in every respect

By Homa Katouzian
February 21, 2002
The Iranian

From Sadeq 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 and habits.

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 his fiction.

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.

The Blind 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

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Dast-e bar qazaa
Short story from 1944
By Sadeq Hedayat

Tanze Hedayat
Hedayat's Satire
By Hassan Javadi

The art of Sadeq Hedayat
Compiled by Yari Ostovany

Bani Ajam
Anti-Arab writings
By Joya Blondel Saad

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