Sadeq Hedayat: Forbidden Voice of Iranian Literature
On the 17th of February 1903, the Iranian modern writer Sadeq Hedayat was born in Tehran, Iran. A child of Iranian aristocratic parents, Hedayat went to a French catholic school, and in 1925, was selected together with a few other students to travel to Europe to continue his studies. There, he pursued various unsuccessful enterprises – among others engineering, architecture, and dentistry – which probably pushed him towards his first attempt of suicide. After four years in Europe (most of which he spent in Paris), he decided to return to Iran, where he devoted his time to studying Western literature, predominantly the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant, and exploring the themes of Iranian history and folklore. The combination of European and Iranian influences constituted his later style, bringing Persian language and literature into the mainstream of international contemporary writing. In fact, Hedayat’s oeuvre is considered one of the most significant advancements in modern Persian literature.
Hedayat was born around the time of the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1907), which opened the gate to the modern era in Persian (Iranian) social, political and cultural life. The Revolution led to the establishment of the first Persian parliament, the first Persian Constitution (1906) and the formation of a new social and political order. This caused the development of new forms of expression which tackled serious social and political criticism practically nonexistent prior to the Revolution. “Historically, Persian literature was dominated by poetry, which had served a greater variety of purposes that its European counterpart. Apart from lyrics, sonnets, epics and mythology, it encompassed mysticism, philosophy, religion, moralizing, panegyrics, history, fables and romances, elegy, satire, abuse, invective and obscenity. Yet, generally speaking, it excluded social and political analysis and criticism; when present, these elements were subtle and indirect. Prose was confined to formal administrative essays, historiography and chronicles, tales and anecdotes and – occasionally – long meditations. There was no prose fiction, satire and drama of the kind which has been developing in Europe since the seventeenth century.” (Homa Katouzian, Sadeq Hedayat: The life and Legend of an Iranian Writer).
Hedayat’s writing was therefore the voice of the post-revolutionary modern Persian society. Aware of the socio-political problems of the time, he gradually became more and more critical of the monarchy and the clergy – the two elements, which in his eyes were responsible for a major abuse of the nation. He was serious about his convictions and probably realised the consequences of such criticism. In a letter to Hasa Shahid-Nura’i on May 15, 1947, he wrote: “We suffer and endure. It has been our lot or not, doesn’t matter anymore. …I intend to make something shameless and ridiculous, so that it will be spittle to all. I might not be able to publish it. It doesn’t matter, but this is my last straw so that at least after I’m gone, they wouldn’t say “so and so was really a fool (an ass)”!” (Homa Katouzian, Sadeq Hedayat: His Work and His Wondrous World).
In 1937, Hedayat published The Blind Owl – the work he has been probably most celebrated for. The book is written in the form of a confession between the narrator and a shadow on his wall, which in its shape resembles an owl. The Blind Owl is a modernist work, closely aligned with European avant-garde literature of the twentieth century. In fact, “[in] a seminal review article on Hedayat and The Blind Owl (written in 1951), Jalal Al-e Ahmad hinted that one of the novel’s passages had been inspired by Rilke’s Notebooks. …Al-e Ahmad’s reference to Rilke’s Notebooks is very specific, since he gives a footnote reference to a French edition of the Notebooks together with the page number where the corresponding passage occurs.” (Katouzian, …The Life…). The book was originally published in Bombay, during Hedayat’s stay there in 1937, as its publication in Iran, due to Reza Shah’s rule (1925-1941), was impossible. It first appeared in Tehran in 1941, and was later translated into many languages. However, in 2005, the book, together with many Western positions and Hadayat’s other novel Hajji Aqa, was banned from the 18th Tehran International Book Fair, and in 2006, its republication in uncensored form was banned in Iran altogether, as: “Sometimes the humiliation of Iranian youth is implied or suggested in the books.” (The Guardian).
In one of the passages of The Blind Owl the narrator sees in his nightmares that “the presence of death annihilates all that is imaginary. We are the offspring of death and death delivers us from the tantalizing, fraudulent attractions of life; it is death that beckons us from the depths of life. If at times we come to a halt, we do so to hear the call of death… Throughout our lives, the finger of death points at us.” In this passage one could later notice the symptoms of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Misunderstood by many in his own country, Hedayat returned to Paris, where on the 4th of April 1951, he committed suicide by gassing himself in a small Parisian apartment. One year after his death Jalal Al-e Ahmad wrote: “As long as Hedayat was alive no one understood him, for the reason that, in all the circles which he used to frequent, they received the news of his death with great surprise. Perhaps no one took him seriously. All of them were more familiar with the masks that he used to put on in gatherings than with the man himself; [more familiar, that is] than with what was eating him from within ‘like leprosy’, and was silently dragging him towards death and disappearance.” (Katouzian, …The Life…)