Book Review: Sadegh Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl”

If you have ever read any of my reviews, trusted any of my recommendations, or placed any faith in my taste or my advice at all, I just want you to do one thing for me:

Do not read this book.

This is not because “The Blind Owl”—Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat’s most famous and enduring work, and a classic of Middle Eastern literature—is bad. The answer could not be further from the truth. Indeed, this book is very, very good, great even. More than worthy of its reputation and status in the canon.

However, you should still not read this book.

This is not an ordinary book. Even translated into English, where the language is changed and diluted from its original Persian, this is not a book that is meant to be read, at least not meant to be read for reasons that would make sense to the average person. It does not even feel like a book that should exist. Hedayat wrote the book while Iran was under the oppression of Reza Shah, immortalized to Westerners as the proxy the British use to get oil in “Persepolis.” It was promptly banned and remained as such for quite some time. This is not just because of the content of the book, which is disturbing, or the political context, which is incredibly damning toward Iran’s political rulers at best.

This is a book that kills people.

You may think I am kidding. I am not. This is the closest the modern era has gotten to producing “The Ring” in real life. Hedayat committed suicide, and the book has been blamed for a number of suicides of people who have read it. Admittedly, they were living in Iran under a dictatorship, and that might have had something to do with it. But the fact of the matter is that this is a book that is dangerous and thus worthy of something more than your respect.

The novel, if it can be even called that, has almost no plot to speak of: a man who paints pen-cases for a living talks to a shadow on his wall—which looks like an owl—about all the people he wants to kill. If that were all, it would not have the reputation it does, but Hedayat’s mastery is in the way he analyzes the humanity—and inhumanity—of what this man is saying. How, in some way, what this murderer is saying is not insane and is, in fact, very human and almost logical. The darkness he speaks of to the owl of shadows is not the ravings of a madman under oppression, but an inner darkness that everyone possesses, a vast field that stretches out onward forever and will consume us all in an instant.

To say any more would be a disservice, both to the power of the book and the danger it possesses. To say more would entice you to seek it out, which you should not do, under any circumstances. Once again, I must ask you again not to read this book. Save yourself. There are things we are not meant to know. This is not for you. None of this is.