The following passage is from Iraj Bashiri’s translation of the The Blind Owl, a short novel by Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat written in Persian and published for the first time in 1937 in Bombay.
The whip whistled through the air, and the horses, whose labored breath issued through their nostrils like columns of smoke in rainy weather, began to move with long but gentle leaps. Their slim forelegs, like the hand of a thief, with fingers severed by law and plunged into hot oil, struck the ground gently and noiselessly. In the damp air, the sound of the bells on their necks had a special ring. An indescribable relief, the cause of which I did not know, filled me from head to toe so thoroughly that I could barely feel the movement of the hearse. The only thing that I felt was the weight of the suitcase on my chest. It seemed as though this weight—her dead body, her corpse—had always been pressing on my chest.
The novel is a surreal tale about a painter of pen cases who dreams grotesque realities that convince him that death pervades all things. On each pen case he paints the same small scene. The characters in the scene appear in his dreams, which struggle with his reality to form his day-to-day experience. It’s possible that the novel chronicles his last, feverish days. He either fantasizes about murdering his wife or does murder her. He cuts up her body and puts the chunks into a suitcase. Or he dreams of doing so. Perhaps he’s confined to a bed and his wife is sleeping with another man in the next room. He imagines a perfect woman, who is one of the characters in his pen case scene. It’s possible that the girl existed in his past. He surely had a mother, but the one he describes seems legendary. The novel, being narrated by this mad man, fixates on details and returns to them again and again in various contexts: a scent, a butcher, a simile. At times the context is confined to what the narrator sees through his window. At other times he looks away and lets us deeper into his mind. The novel is often described as having a fractured narrative, and it does, but the narrative is not a puzzle to put together. The fracturing is itself the point. Sadegh cuts open our heads, tosses his ingredients into our minds and then heats the sauce—stirring it with a wooden spoon until our mind bubbles, making our understanding all a jumble. And I don’t think he aims to stop at jumbling only our understanding of his tale. I think he wants to jumble our understanding of our own lives. The novel affects your perception, makes you mentally dizzy. The narrator arrives at the conclusion that death is everywhere but never quite figures out if he’s death’s great sower or its foolish victim. For the best result, you should read the novel in one sitting.
The Blind Owl was adapted into a film in Iran in 1974 and again in France in 1987 by Raoul Ruiz.
For comparison’s sake, here’s the same passage as above but from an older but more popular translation by D.P. Costello.
The whip whistled through the air; the horses set off, breathing hard. The vapour could be seen through the drizzling rain, rising from their nostrils like a stream of smoke. They moved with high, smooth paces. Their thin legs, which made me think of the arms of a thief whose fingers have been cut off in accordance with the law and the stumps plunged into boiling oil, rose and fell slowly and made no sound as they touched the ground. The bells around their necks played a strange tune in the damp air. A profound sensation of comfort to which I can assign no cause penetrated me from head to foot and the movement of the hearse did not impart itself in any degree to my body. All that I could feel was the weight of the suitcase upon my chest. I felt as if the weight of her dead body and the coffin in which it lay had for all time been pressing upon my chest.
I don’t like it as much.