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Sadeq Hedayat (1903-1951)


Iranian short-story writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist, the most important Persian author of the 20th century. Sadeq Hedayat's short stories reflect his deeply pessimistic world view and his love for the heritage of his country. His most famous tale is Buf-e Kur (1937, The Blind Owl). Hedayat died tragically in Paris in 1951.

"What is love? For the rabble love is a kind of variety, a transient vulgarity; the rabble's conception of love is best found in their obscene ditties, in prostitution and in the foul idioms they use when they are halfway sober, such as "shoving the donkey's foreleg in mud," or "putting dust on the head." My love for her, however, was of a totally different kind. I knew her from ancient times--strange slanted eyes, a narrow, half-open mouth, a subdued quiet voice. She was the embodiment of all my distant, painful memories among which I sought what I was deprived of, what belonged to me but somehow I was denied. Was I deprived forever?" (in 'The Blind Owl' translated by  Iraj Bashiri)

Sadeq Hedayat was born in Tehran in 1903, the son of Hedayat Gholi Khan-e Hedayat, and Ozra-Zivar-Ol-Moluk Hedayat. He came from an old aristocratic family.  Among his ancestors were many prominent men of letters and statesmen. Reza Qoli Khan (1800-1871), his great-grandfather, was famous as a poet and historian. Hedayat's eldest brother was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court, and another brother became a general and a commander of the Military Academy.

At the age of 15 Hedayat suffered from a severe eye problem; this interrupted his education for a period. After attending the Dar-al-Fonun, the first Iranian polytechnic school established in the middle of the 19th century, Hedayat entered the prestigious École St Louis, a French missionary school, where he spent much of his time reading French literature. Although he had broken with his family, he had a room in his father's house, which he occupied for most of his life in Iran. Hedayat graduated in 1925.

While still a student, Hedayat published a study of Umar Khayyam's Ruba'iyyat.  He argued that Khayyam's reflections on the fragility of life and especially his observation of injustice, and the hypocrisy of the people around, led him from scepticism to pessimism – Hedayat was perhaps speaking as much of himself as of Khayyam.

Originally Hedayat  was sent to Europe to study engineering by Reza Shah, but after failing to cope with the advanced mathematics he eventually gave up his studies. Moreover, he missed home, there were delays in receiving in his monthly grant, and he had difficulties in maintaining his vegatarian diet, which he had adopted in his youth. After leaving Ghent Port Univesity, Belgium, he moved to Paris, then to Reims to Besancon, and back to Paris.  In Berlin he wrote an essay entitled The Benefits of Vegetarianism, which defended the rights of animals.

While in Europe Hedayat he regularly frequented cinemas, theatres, art galleries, and read the works on Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and his contemporary Kranz Kafka. He also translated many of Kafka's works and other European writers, especially in the late 1940s. For Kafka's short story 'In the Penal Colony' he wrote an introduction called 'Payam-e Kafka' (Kafka Message). Hedayat wrote in it: "This world is not fit for living. It is stifling. That is why [Kafka] goes in search of "the land, and the air, and the law" which can accommodate a decent life." (Sadeq Hedayat: His Work and His Wondrous World, edited by Homa Katouzian, 2008, pp. 130-131)

Possibly Rainer Maria Rilke's prose work The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Rilke's fascination of death inspired Hedayat to write his own commentary entitled Marg (death), which was published in Berlin in the periodical Iranshahr in February 1927. However, Homa Katouzian has argued that  there is no evidence that Hedayat had read any Rilke at the time. (Sadeq Hedayat: The Life and Literature of an Iranian Writer by Homa Katouzian, 1992, p. 40) 

Late in April in 1927, Hedayat made a suicide attempt by jumping into Marne from a bridge. He was rescued by a young man, who was by coincidence on a boat with a girl right under the bridge and jumped into the river and took him out. "I did something really crazy," he just said in a letter to his brother. (The Life of Sadeq Hedayat by Dr. Iraj Bashiri, 2019, p. 3) It is a mystery, why he tried to end his life. "No, no one decides to commit suicide. Suicide is within some people. It is in their very nature, they can't escape it,"  Hedayat wrote in the short story 'Zendeh beh Gur' (1930, Buried Alive). (Three Drops of Blood by Sadeq Hedayat, translated by Deborah Miller Mostaghel, edited by Nushin Arbabzadah, 2008, p. 100)

A recluse by nature, sleeping in a college dormitory didn't suit Hedayat at all. He wrote to his friend Taqi Razavi: "Worse than any possible torture is this incredible Turk who is sleeping next to me. That he says his prayers five times a day is his own funeral. That he fasts during Ramadan is also his own bloody business. Good God he goes to bed at 9 o'clock, and gets up in the morning, and all the while he snores as if they've been shitting right inside his dirty mouth." ('Chapter Four: Satire in Persian Literature, 1900-1940' by Homa Katouzian, in Literature of the Early Twentieth Century: From the Constitutional Period to Reza Shah, edited by Ali-Asghar Seyed-Gohrab, 2015, p. 237)

Returning to Tehran in 1930, Hedayat published his first collection of short stories, Zinda be-Gur  (Buried Alive) and the first of his three plays, Parvin dukhtar-e Sasan (Parvin the Sassanian Girl). With Mojtaba Minovi, Mas'ud Farzad and Bozorg Alavia he founded in 1932 an antimonarchial, anti-Islamic literary club called Rab'a or "fourssome," which attacked conservative literary establishment. At the same time Hedayat  began to develop his interests in Iranian history, folklore, and traditional beliefs. Usually, the members of the club met in downtown teahouses and restaurants.

Hedayat's second collection of short stories, Se Qatreh Khun (1932),  was followed by Sayeh Rowshan (1933). They dealt with his feelings of alienation and the idea of self-destruction – themes that ran throughout his work. With  Afsaneh-ye Afarinesh (1946, The Myth of Creation) Hedayat tried his skills as a satirist. The story, written in 1930, was about Adam and Eve. Though vulnerable to bouts of moodiness and depression, Hedayat's  sense of humor came to his rescue.

To earn his living Hedayat worked at the National Bank of Iran, the Chamber of Commerce, and the General Department of Constructions. For Hedayat, his intellectual  pursuits were more important than his daily work. Eventually his antimonarchical opinions and his critic of a society that fears advancement drew the attention of the authorities. To get away from Iran after Rab'a was disbanded and some of its members were put to jail, he went to India – Hedayat had been for a long time interested in Buddhist philosophy, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism. He lived in the Parsee Zoroastrian community in Bombay. During this period he finished Buf-i Kur (The Blind Owl), a surrealistic novella about frenzy and disappointment. Copies of the first print – only 50 copies – were sent to his friends to Europe, but Hedayat's masterpiece was not published in Iran until 1941. The novella is divided into two parts. Seemingly they have little in common, but the same images and archetypal figures appear repeatedly in both narratives in a form or another.

In the first story a painter sees in his murderous, feverish 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." The narrator writes to his shadow, which looks like an owl and witnesses his confessions like the raven in Poe's famous poem. A woman dressed in black had visited him. When he had touched her, he had realized that she was dead. The narrator had dismembered her body, and put the parts in a suitcase to cart them away for burial. In the second part the narrator – a potential Jack the Ripper type character – tells of his unhappy marriage and how he kills his whorish wife with a knife.

Back in Tehran, Hedayat went to work again at the National Bank and then joined the State Office of Music and edited Journal of Music. (Of all Western classical composers, he loved especially Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.) In 1944 Hedayat travelled in Soviet Uzbekistan. Sag-i Velgard (1942, The Stray Dog), a collection of eight short stories, were written mostly before his trip to India. In the title piece Headyat tells about rejection through the eyes of a Scottish setter. The dog lives on an alley and longs in vain for kindness and attention it enjoyed before.

"All his efforts were pointless. He didn't know why he had run and or where he was going. He could neither go ahead nor back. He stopped, short of breath, his tongue hanging out. His eyes darkened. With bent head and with much labor, he pulled himself out of the middle of the road and went and laid his belly on wet and hot sand near a ditch on the edge of a field. By means of his instinct that had never lied to him, he felt that he would never be able to move from that place." (in 'The Stray Dog')

Hedayat welcomed a more open society after Allied forces invaded the country in 1941 and Reza Shah's regime collapsed, but eventually his optimism turned into pessimism. The Office of Music and its journal were closed down. Hedayat ended up at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Tehran University, where he worked in various capacities. His last work of fiction, Farda (tomorrow) appeared in 1946. Hedayat's restless final years were shadowed by his drug addiction and alcohol problems. He kept a close contact to the Tudeh Party, which he hoped would free the country from the Pahlavis, Western overlords, and the bondages of Islam.

Frustrated with the cultural and political atmosphere of his country, Hedayat left  Iran at the end of 1950 and settled in Paris without money or job. On April 4, 1951, he took his own life by gassing himself. The circumstances of his death are still under debate. Many of his characters in his fiction commit suicide, as in 'Abji Khanom', 'Whirlpool', and 'Buried Alive'. Nevertheless, he also wrote in a letter to a friend in Paris: "I have taken my decision. One must struggle in this cataract of shit until disgust with living suffocates us." ('Sadeq Hedayat: His Life and Works' by Homa Katouzian, in Three Drops of Blood by Sadeq Hedayat, translated by Deborah Miller Mostaghel, edited by Nushin Arbabzadah, 2008, p. vii)  Hedayat was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. He never married. Iraj Bashiri  mentions in The Life of Sadeq Hedayat (2019) that he had female friends.

The Sadeq Hedayat's Centenary Conference was held at St Antony's College, Oxford, in March 2003. The conferfence was organized by the Iran Heritage Foundation and by the Oriental Institute and St Antony's College. Many of his works were banned by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime. In 2008, Iran Open Publishing Group began to publish  Hedayat's Complete Works in  Farsi language.  

For further reading: The Life of Sadeq Hedayat by Dr. Iraj Bashiri (2019);  'Blind Owl' by David Brottman, in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to Present, ed. Michael D. Sollars (2010); Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledges: Persian Poesis in the Transnational Circuitry by Michael M.J. Fischer (2004); A History of Literary Criticism in Iran, 1866-1951: The Lives and Works of Akhundzadeh, Kermani, Malkom Khan, Talebof, Maraghei, Kasravi and Hedayat by Iraj Parsinejad (2002); Sadeq Hedayat: The Life and Literature of an Iranian Writer by Homa Katouzian (1992); Les Affinites Francaises de Sadeq Hedayat: Etude Comparative Avec Les Oeuvres de Nerval, Baudelaire Et Sartre by Derayeh Derakhshesh (1991); Hedayat's Blind Owl As a Western Novel by Michael Beard (1990); Hedayat's "The Blind Owl" Forty Years After, edited by Michael Hillmann (1977); Hedayat's Ivory Tower: Structural Analysis by I. Bashiri (1974); Modern Persian Prose Literature by H. Kamshad (1966) 

Selected works:

  • Zindeh be-gur, 1930
  • Osaneh, 1931
  • Parvin dukhtar-e Sasan, 1930
  • Sayeh-ye Mughul, 1931
  • Seh qatreh khun, 1932 - Three Drops of Blood and Other Stories, 2008  (edited by Nushin Arbabzadah, translated by Deborah Miller Mostaghel)
  • Esfahan nesf-e Jahan, 1932
  • 'Alaviyeh Khanom, 1933
  • Neyrangestan, 1933
  • Maziyar, 1933 (with Mojtaba Minovi)n
  • Sayeh Rushan, 1933
  • Alaviyeh Khanum, 1933
  • Vagh Vagh Sahab, 1933
  • Buf-e Kur, 1937 - The Blind Owl (translated by D. P. Costello, 1957)  / The Blind Owl, and Other Hedayat Stories (compiled by Carol L. Sayers; edited by Russell P. Christensen, 1984)
  • Sag-e Velgard, 1942
  • Velengari, 1944
  • Ab-e Zendegi, 1944
  • Haji Aqa, 1945 - Haji Agha: Portrait of an Iranian Confidence Man (translated by G. M. Wickens, 1979)  
  • Farda, 1946
  • Afsaneh-ye Afarinesh, 1946 - The Myth of Creation: A Puppet Show in Three Acts (translated from the Persian by M.R. Ghanoonparvar, 1998)  
  • Sadeq’s Omnibus: A Collection of Short Stories, 1970 (translated by Siavosh Danesh)
  • Tup-i Murvari, 1979
  • Sadwq Hedyat: An Anthology, 1979
  • Three Drops of Blood and Other Stories, 2008  (edited by Nushin Arbabzadah, translated by Deborah Miller Mostaghel)

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