ii. THEMES, PLOTS, AND TECHNIQUE IN HEDAYAT’S FICTION
In 1930 Sadeq Hedayat published his first short stories in a collection called Zende be-gur (Buried Alive). A year later, he published a story called “Sāye-ye moḡol” (The Shadow of the Mongols) in a volume called Anirān (Non-Iran), along with two other xenophobic, nationalistic narratives by Bozorg ʿAlawi and Širāzpur Partow. In 1932, Hedayat published Se qaṭra ḵun (Three Drops of Blood), his second collection of short stories. In 1933 he published a collection of satirical and humorous sketches called Vaḡ vaḡ ṣāḥāb (Mr. Bow Wow), written in collaboration with Masʿud Farzād; a separately published narrative called ʿAlawiya ḵānom (Madame Alaviyeh; q.v.); and Sāya rowšan (Chiaroscuro), his third collection of short stories.
Most of the short stories that Sadeq Hedayat wrote between the late 1920s and the mid-1930s are generally culture-specific, full of local color, and depict some aspects of Iranian life during the same period. Their Iranian settings are geographically varied. The people in the stories are young men of education, traditional bazaar characters, Armenians, villagers, gypsies, prostitutes, an upper middle class family, an office worker, a traditional lower class family, and a traditional dervish character.
Three stories, “Zende be-gur,” “Ayena-ye šekasta” (The Broken Mirror), and “ʿArusak-e pošt-e parda” (“The Man-nequin behind the Curtain”), have non-Iranian settings, at least in part, and feature a young, educated Iranian male protagonist unable or unwilling to participate in a normal romantic relationship with a girl who is attracted to or loves him. The three protagonists are shy loners, who reject the girls in question, two of whom meet tragic ends. In “The Broken Mirror” the blond and beautiful Odette, whom Jamšid has left, apparently commits suicide. In “The Mannequin behind the Curtain” Mehrdād, having fallen in love in Le Havre with a mannequin that he takes back with him to Tehran, rejects Deraḵšande, his fiancée from childhood. Deraḵšande tries to win Mehrdād back, but in a drunken stupor Mehrdād kills Deraḵšande, who has dressed herself like the mannequin and startles Mehrdād by standing in the mannequin’s place and then responding to Mehrdād’s touch.
"Gerdāb” (Whirlpool) is another narrative about an educated young Iranian male protagonist whose behavior destroys the love around him. Homāyun’s best friend Bahrām has committed suicide and leaves a note bequeathing his property to Homāyun’s daughter Homā. The inexplicability of Bahrām’s suicide and the note and a presumed resemblance between Bahrām and Homā lead Homāyun to suspect that Bahrām was Homā’s real father. Homā and her mother Badri leave Homāyun. Several weeks later Homāyun finds the rest of Bahrām’s suicide note that reveals that Bahrām took his own life because of his love for Badri. Homāyun decides to go to say goodbye to Homā, but she has died from pneumonia that she caught after running away from school one day.
Yet another story with an educated male protagonist is “Se qaṭre ḵun,” which deserves discussion in tandem with “Zende be-gur,” as both stories feature first person narration that is problematic because the narrator in each case may be deranged. Both stories exhibit a distinctive tension in Hedayat’s fiction. In “Buried Alive” the narrator who craves death is a writer or has at least written down all of the material that comprises the story. In “Three Drops of Blood” the narrator has been begging asylum authorities for pen and paper for a time, al-though he admits that since being given writing materials he finds he has little to write. In both stories, the act of writing implies the will to communicate with others and implies the existence of meaning, either in the words written, the events and actions recounted, or the lives described, which is to say the lives of the writer and readers. This creative impulse has special significance, because it balances a pervasive desire to die, which permeates much of Hedayat’s writing and which is the antithesis of creation.
Protagonists in “Buried Alive” and “Three Drops of Blood” are caught between their consciousness of the meaninglessness and futility of life and their impulse to impart meaning or imply that meaning exists through creative communication, through writing. At the same time, the nightmarish horror of lives of suffering perceived as lived for no purpose is heightened by the very imagination of characters who can dream of an ideal order with which to contrast the hellish, senseless state of their own lives.
This applies not only to stories with urbane, educated characters but also to stories depicting traditional, lower class lives. “Ābji ḵānom” (The Spinster), “Dāwud-e guž-pošt” (Dāvud the Hunchback), “Lāla” (Laleh), and “Dāš Akol” (Dash Akol) portray traditional social environments and characters who face rejection in part because of physical limitations. In “The Spinster,” an ugly, unloved older sister is driven to suicide by the marriage of her beautiful and loved younger sister. In “Davud the Hunchback,” the deformed title character, who like some other Hedayat characters, wishes that he had never been born, can find affection reciprocated only by a dog, who dies before Davud realizes that the dog may like him. In “Dash Akol,” the title character is unable to reveal his love for Marjān, his ward, and after her marriage, in despair, allows himself to be killed by his archenemy Kākā Rostam.
In “Ḥāji Morād” (Haji Morad), suspicion and jealousy play a role, as in “The Whirlpool,” but the characters are traditional bazaar people.
Despicable characters people “Ṭalab-e āmorzeš” (Seek-ing Absolution) and “‘Alawiya kanom” (Alawiyeh Khanom or The Pilgrimage), stories which portray negative sides of humanity in a context which ridicules alleged hypocrisy in Islam. “Zani ke mardaš-rā gom kard” (The Woman Who Lost Her Man) has a non-tragic ending like “Seeking Absolution” and “The Pilgrimage,” although readers can suppose that Zarrinkolāh’s new man will eventually treat her as her husband Golbebu and her mother did earlier.
Story after story depicts alienation, rejection, antipathy toward others, unhappiness, defeat, death, a deformed society, individuals deformed by fate, dysfunctional romantic and sexual relationships, and meaninglessness of life.
In 1936, Hedayat wrote a story called “Mihanparast” (The Patriot) in Bombay, which he could not publish until after the abdication of Reza Shah in August 1941 because of its anti-monarchical and anti-establishment satirical content. That story appeared in that year with seven others in Hedayat’s fourth collection of short stories, Sag-e velgard (Stray Dog). Other Hedayat stories from the late 1930s through the mid-1940s were compiled after his death in a volume called Nevestahā-ye parakanda-ye Sadeq Hedayat (Scattered Writings of Sadeq Hedayat).
In early 1937, in Bombay, Hedayat prepared a handwritten master of the first of three longer narratives, Buf-e kur (The Blind Owl; q.v.) on mimeograph stencils and ran off forty to fifty copies (Katirā’i, Ketab-e Ṣādeq Hedāyat, 1971). This modest publication venture marks, in the view of most critics, the formal beginning of significant novel writing in the Persian language. In 1945, Hedayat published a satirical social protest narrative called Ḥāji Āqā (Haji Agha; q.v.). He wrote a quasi-historical, allegorical narrative satire called Tup-e morvāri (The Pearl Cannon) in 1947.
At their publication, many of Hedayat’s fictions constituted unprecedented, influential events in Persian fiction. In the context of Iranian story writing in the 1930s and before, Hedayat’s fictions exhibited the following, then distinctive, features. First, he eschewed conventional, carefully wrought, often flowery and pedantic, literary Persian prose style for a straightforward, informal literary register or, better put, a middle register between formal and casual, a register appropriate for his first-person narrators and for his omniscient third-person observer-narrators. Second, he wove folklore and folk expressions into his texts in a functional way, unlike their use as entertaining decorative elements in earlier Persian fictions. Third, he routinely had his characters speak in a colloquial register, spelling some of what they said in spo-ken forms, giving readers used to seeing the statements of story characters in literary forms an unprecedented impression of realistic speech. Fourth, Hedayat chose concrete, specific diction and imagery which led to an impression of realistic, individuated situations, rather than the stylized, idealized, generic descriptions in earlier writing, which had given readers the sense that they were dealing with types rather than individuals. Fifth, Hedayat depicted non-romantic, non-heroic protagonists and non-romantic, non-idealized situations. Sixth, Hedayat’s stories, which lead readers to experience particular environments, atmosphere, and senses of how the author sees life, routinely conclude without didactic import, an almost unprecedented approach in serious Persian literature. In all of these regards, Hedayat’s distinctive storytelling both advanced the medium in Persian literature and served as an indigenous model for later Persian short-story writers and novelists.
At the same time, the years since Sadeq Hedayat’s death in 1951 have provided readers with new vantage points from which to appreciate his writing, including his narrative techniques, both in its own terms and in the context of fiction-writing in general. As M. A. Homayun Katuzian shows in Sadeq Hedayat: The Man and His Literature (1991), Hedayat turns out not to have lived an extraordinary, heroic, mysterious, or even a conventionally productive life, but rather the life of a writer who produced extraordinary fictions. Readers no longer need to read those fictions as special or daring statements of social criticism of the Reza Shah Pahlavi era (1925-41). Readers no longer need to think of Hedayat’s fiction as a novel or technically distinctive phenomenon in Persian literature, even though they qualified as such at the time of their publication, because of the subsequent flowering and maturation of the Persian short story from the mid-1940s onward and the coming of age of the Persian novel from the late 1950s onward.
Writings on Hedayat, from Al-e Ahmad’s "Hedayat-e buf-e kur” (“The Hedayat of The Blind Owl” 1951) to Michael Beard’s Hedayat’s Blind Owl as a Western Novel (1990), shows readers that Hedayat did not pen his famous fictions as a solitary creator, but rather a man of the literary world of his day, whose major work exhibits significant inspiration and echoes of other literary works. Marta Simidchieva, in “The Nightingale and Buf-e Kur” (1994) and “The River That Runs Through It” (1995), portrays Hedayat as a person grounded in and attached to his cultural past, inspiration from which he transmuted into modern images and relationships. E. Yarshater in his introduction to Sadeq Hedayat: An Anthology emphasizes the essentially Persian character of Hedayat’s outlook and worldview despite his immersion in Western fiction and adoption of its techniques. Perhaps the most significant aspect of revisionist criticism of Hedayat’s fiction has to do with technique in fiction. As Sirus Ṭāhbāz, writing in 1997, puts it: “With the exception of The Blind Owl, which is a peerless work, many of his short stories are wholly lacking in artistic value from today’s viewpoint” (Darbāra-ye zendegi wa honar-e Sadeq Hedayat [On the Life and Art of Ṣādeq Hedāyat], p. 110). To be sure, Hedayat’s fiction neither exhibited sophisticated techniques in comparison with European and American fiction of the day nor stands today as fiction which critical readers appreciate for technique. At the same time, however, two factors in the continuing appeal of Hedayat’s best fiction, the amalgam of modernism and lyricism, do relate to technique or bring specific techniques into play.
Hedayat’s fiction participates in the fatalistic, philosophically sad, and pessimistic end of a twentieth-century spectrum of writing which critics call “modern” or “modernist,” a development in literature which involved a discontinuity between a traditional past and a “modern” present, between a literary past devoted to answers and a modernist present often confining itself to questions. Iranian and foreign critics routinely label Hedayat’s work “modern” and “modernist” and see him as the founding father of “modernist Persian fiction” paralleling a similar role played by Nima Yushij in Persian lyric verse (E. Yarshater, “Modern Persian Idiom,” 1984).
Critics mean at least two things by labeling Hedayat’s fiction as modernist. First, they use the term “modern” with respect to Persian literary works to contrast them with “traditional” or “traditionalist” Persian literature. From its beginnings in the 10th century to the early 20th century, Persian literature exhibited conventional modes, forms, topics, diction, sensibilities, and styles, which changed in the first quarter of the twentieth century with the appearance of nationalistic verse, the use of colloquial Persian registers in literary writing, a new romantic sensibility in early verse by Nima Yushij, and realistic social criticism in early stories by Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh. When Hedayat started publishing his stories in 1930, sophisticated readers recognized that he was as modern as could be, in contrast to Persian literary traditions and practice. His very use of the short story and novella forms was modern, there being no tradition for those species of narrative in Persian literature.
Second, critics also apply the term “modernist” to Hedayat’s writing in referencing several discrete movements, views, and styles in literature around the world, either deriving from specific realities and reactions in Europe during the first three decades of the twentieth century or relating to analogous events and circumstances elsewhere. For example, if the facts of World War I shook the confidence of European intellectuals and artists in their previously held beliefs in human progress and Euro-pean civilization and led some of them to modernist positions, in a country such as Iran the facts of Western dominance shook the confidence of Iranian intellectuals in their previously held belief in the special validity of Iranian civilization, leading them to a sort of modernist philosophical stance.
According to the critics, definable topics influence or characterize the formal or literary attributes of modernism. First, authors, narrators, and speakers no longer serve as representatives or voices of or models for readers, as did Ferdowsi, Sa’di, Hafez, and the like, but rather present themselves as separated from their readers in world view and as a sort of avant-garde vis-à-vis them. Second, authors, narrators, and speakers routinely question traditional world views that posit God at the center of things and human souls as having the prospect of unending spiritual salvation. Third, authors abandon the idea of an aesthetic order and choose forms, structures, and styles reflective of their individual, untraditional views about things. Presumably, many Iranian writers have felt that their new situations and views in a modern world oblige them to choose new forms, images, and diction to communicate new experiences. Fourth, modernist writing often exhibits sorts of perversity, which is to say that modernist writers use surprise, shock, terror, and affront as motifs, presumably because they experience such in a world no longer rational, predictable, or harmonious. Fifth, a whole new sense of the hero or protagonist imbues modernist fictions, in which protagonists are no longer heroic and struggles no longer epic, presumably because writers think that people in the real world are no longer that way. Sixth, nihilism finds a place at the heart of much modernist literature (Irving Howe, The Idea of the Modern, 1967).
Clearly, Hedayat’s fictions belong to any category of writing with such characteristics. His narrators (and the author behind them) communicate an avant-garde stance, separate from and unappreciated by society. They do not turn to God or religion in dealing with their problems. The aesthetic behind much of his fiction appears on the surface to have few connections with the Iranian literary past. Perversity, a new sort of un-heroic protagonist, and nihilism clearly figure in characterization, plot, and theme of some of his fiction.
As for connections between literary modernism and technique in Hedayat’s fiction, Buf-e kur offers the clearest illustration (see Buf-e kur for a plot summary). Here Hedayat presents his story in surrealist, symbolist, and even magic realist modes, which undermine for readers any potential autobiographical and sociological import. Buf-e kur seems to lack a linear plot, a movement of conflict over time from a beginning to an end. An idiosyncratic and emotionally or psychologically troubled first-person narrator tells the story of his life, which leaves readers wondering about the boundaries between fact and fiction or a dream world and real world. When the narrator of Buf-e kur tells readers how much the vision of the ethereal girl affected him, he does not say that that she revealed the prospect of bliss or splendor to him, but rather the splendor of his ill fortune. In all of these respects, Hedayat made instinctive or deliberate choices in telling his story the way he did. In each of these regards, the impulse behind his story-telling technique appears to relate to a single, simple principle: the nature of the specific experience he sought to communicate to readers, rather than concern about conventional storytelling practice or conventional reader expectations.
Its words play a primary role in the effects of Buf-e kur on readers. The language of the text is perhaps more important than actions depicted therein. Over the years, reader reaction to Buf-e kur has had a lot to do with the book’s language. The narrator’s hybrid middle register of Persian and use of colloquial spelling and forms in dialogue further flesh out his personality for the reader. In technical terms, such facts relate to the technique of the interior monologue, which Hedayat used in his early stories “Buried Alive” and “Three Drops of Blood” and in one of his last fictions, the short story “Tomorrow” (1946), which features two monologists.
Hedayat adds to the interior monologue technique in Buf-e kur the monologist’s characteristic communication of lyrical passages and evocative descriptive moments. The famous opening passage of the book exhibits imagery and phraseology and sentence patterns that create a nostalgic sense of alienation typical of modernist lyric expression. That passage sets a lyric tone for the book. Then there is the much quoted passage beginning with “šab pāvarčin pāvarčin miraft . . .” (The night was tiptoeing away), which is just one of a score of passages in the book lyrically depicting dawn, dusk, darkness, and weather.
Such passages throughout Buf-e kur, its reflection of borrowings from and affinities with specific lyric poems and lyrical elements in other narratives, as well as those features of the book which make difficult its appreciation as narrative of any typical kind, suggest that it belongs to the category of lyrical fiction, a sort of submersion of narrative in imagery and portraiture, a mode which may naturally lead to an effective rendering of the mind and which may open up ranges of metaphoric suggestiveness unachievable by purely narrative means. A primarily narrative movement would have involved new events or increasing intensity in that movement, whereas Hedayat’s technique spotlights significance on already narrated events and turns narrative actions into scenes which readers experience as moments or states or tableaux.
The notion of lyrical fiction can lead Hedayat’s readers down various paths relevant to appreciation of technique in his fiction. One technique in Buf-e kur has to do with parallel structure, pairing of synonyms, and other kinds of pairing which create a specific effect on readers. In the space of the three or four opening sentences in Buf-e kur, fifteen or sixteen instances of pairing of synonyms and phrases occur, which bring rhythm to the narrator’s monologue. Such instances of pairing, parallel structure, and incremental repetition occur upwards of a thousand times in the text.
Paralleling and incremental repetition of motifs (for instance the figure of “the old man” which appears in the guise of the narrator’s father, his uncle, the odds and ends men, and the hearse driver) is one of the most effective techniques that Hedayat uses to create in the reader a sense of puzzlement and of mystery never quite dissolved or dissipated. The book has two stories. The narrator has a shadow and a hamzād “double.” The narrator’s father and uncle are twins whose identity has been confused. The narrator says he loves two women. One of them says he loves and hates; the other remains idealized and out of reach. As a title image, the owl has taken the place of a nightingale in a modern anti-love version of love lyrics. The hearse driver in the first story becomes the odds-and-ends man in the second. The number “two” appears everywhere in the book, as in two flies, two coins, two months, two drops of blood. Repetition and echoing occur in mirrors and other images.
The writer-narrator thus communicates to readers his experience of a peculiar “duality,” a perhaps horrifying perception of life for a person who would like to be a complete or integrated individual, for a person caught between a desire to create and a wish for an end to things, for a person caught between the past and present of his own culture, for a person who sees contradictions within and without at every turn. By means of parallelism, dualism, doubling, and repetition in phraseology, sentence patterns, images, and story elements, readers come to experience the narrator’s state. In aesthetic terms, this verbal patterning and patterning of imagery makes for a poetic transaction, in which the author achieves lyrical unity and singleness of effect despite a lack of narrative and thematic unity or clarity. In Hedayat’s text, auto-biographical elements, a speaker’s individuated voice representing the speaker’s individuated views, and the speaker’s engagement of issues of Persianness in a modern world play a part. Hedayat’s sensitivity to or burdening by Persian history directly engages contemporary European texts and views, and Persian folklore, and ultimately does not reveal an unequivocal message. The result is a Hedayatesque atmosphere and a poetic stance which readers may interpret as depiction of life as having a fork in the road, each path leading to a dead end, with even the reality of the road being in question.
The Iran of Hedayat’s fiction is full of contradictions, ambiguities, ambivalences, dilemmas, dysfunction in communication, and dead-ends. But his Buf-e kur does not lead readers to a statement of a theme that captures the essence of the fiction. Perhaps here is where the modernist writer of fiction and the lyric poet coalesce. If the writer and his narrator have found life puzzling, troubling, or meaningless, his representation of that state of mind and experience through a lyrical narrative which puzzles readers or makes them feel how it feels not to make sense of things seems appropriate and signals a sort of threatening literary appeal which brings readers back again and again to the text.
Bibliography: See v, below.
(Michael Graig Hillmann)
Originally Published: December 15, 2003
Last Updated: March 20, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. XII, Fasc. 2, pp. 127-130