I've just read this, first published in Farsi in 1937 by Sadiq Hidayat/Sadegh Hedayat - unfortunately both his first and last names change according to which edition and which country he's published in - the famous Persian/Iranian writer. It was then published for the first time in English in 1957 by John Calder. (Interestingly, this translation by D. P. Costello is the same one used for this Harvill edition; it is also the same one used for Blind Owl (Oneworld Modern Classics), which is not surprising, since OneWorld bought Calder Books - so if you want to save yourself some money, buy a secondhand copy of this edition from Amazon's marketplace!). I found the story to be hallucinatory, sinister, troubling and strange: all these emotions in a compelling, positive way, if that makes sense. There is a pervading eeriness to it that has echoes of Poe's story, The Best Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Tales), Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (Dover Thrift) and Kafka's claustrophobic environments and strange experiences in The Castle (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature) and in the city of Joseph K.'s The Trial (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature). It strikes me that the author has consciously accounted for these influences, though there may be many others from Persian literature, his own culture.
So how could you not be drawn in and find it compelling, irrespective - or because of?! - the subject matter and its distinctive writing style? After all, this is a story of madness, obsession and horrific murder, even - perhaps - necrophilia, of the main character laying down in bed with his wife as her body decomposes. (I say perhaps, because you're not certain that this is a deranged fantasy of his, or whether it has actually happened; this sort of uncertainty permeates the entire novella). What I've just described may understandably make it sound like some sort of gross-out horror story, but I assure you it's not; it's much more sophisticated than that, albeit that it remains disturbing, as any tale of madness should be and certainly more haunting than shlock gorish horror fiction!
While the language of the English translation by D. P. Costello is simple, accessible - and poetic - you soon become aware that its simplicity and style is part of the duplicity/tricksiness of the text; it is, itself, a part of a trap the author has set you, the reader. You innocently read on, turning the pages, uncertain of the future you are about to imbibe, and almost immediatley you are trapped, taken in, feeling helpless yet with eyes wide open, on a journey within the narrator's mind.
The man appears to be a straightforward, simple guy, making his living as an artist creating designs on the lids of pen-cases (but the design is always the same image - `in the grip of a mad obsession' (p.86), unconsciously referring to himself, the design of an `a Cypress tree at the foot of which is squatting a bent old man bent like a fakir (. ) and a woman `holding a flower of morning glory in her hand. Between them runs a stream' (p.86))). This is one of many phrases he repeats throughout the telling of his tale.
By page 24, you are being told of murder, of the narrator severing his wife's head, then proceeding to amputate her limbs and the disposal of her body is grotesque and surreal. Or has done these things, really? Are they delusions? Either way, whether he's `only' deranged and has fantasised his killing of his wife, or he actually has, you can't help but read on, `look' at what is happening to him, in the same unhealthily curious way drivers/passers-by often look at a traffic accident, wanting, yet not wanting to, see the gory details, the blood and terror of it in stark reality. Yet we look. It is like that here; it is genuinely disturbing.
The narrator is or has experienced seems to be a complete nervous breakdown/break from reality, and you sense the world he describes is that of a socio/psychopath, though he never sees himself as such. He has no real sense of time, admitting that an event of a thousand years ago may seem to him more real than something that occurred yesterday. On top of which, he is addicted to opium - in ever-increasing daily doses, and consumes wine: he is absolutley conflicted - he wants - is compelled - to tell you his story, yet at the same time he tells you he smokes opium because he wants to forget; and that he's not even sure what really happened `life is a fiction', he says', `a story'. And here we are, smack in the heart of in the course of its telling. He doesn't seem to sleep, he hardly eats or if he's eating. he is becoming a shadow (p.3), just wasting away: `A sensation which had long been familiar to me was this, that I was slowly decomposing while I yet lived' (p.59); he is alienated, an outsider, he despises others and has no value for his own life: `For some reason all activity, all happiness onthe part of other people made me feel like vomiting. I was aware that my own life was finished and was slowly and painfully guttering out' (p.68); he has nightmares of beheadings, of butchering; his eye is drawn to the butcher's opposite when he works away with his knife into the flesh his dead animals just delivered to him.
Such a breakdown doesn't exclude his own sane insights into his self and circumstances and events, yet these are threaded through as a pattern in a cloth of a different colour overall (for example, just two pages into the story, while admitting his one `fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself', he immediately goes on to say `In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people'); these and other such reflections are moments of genuine self-awareness/insight, but you know they're not the threads holding the entire cloth together anymore; his sanity is in that sense a sort of echo, one of many operating levels both psychological as well as in verbal/narrative telling of his story. So from the outset, in the very brief chapter one, which is in effect a prologue, he tells you he is trying to make sense of it all .
You know for certain that he utterly loathes his wife, and he obsesses and returns time and again to key phrases and expressions, just like someone with a serious psychological fissure/crack in their worldview. Yet even his hatred for his wife - he only ever refers to her as `the bitch' `because no other name would suit her so well' (p.60) and he belives her to have had countless affairs; not even affairs, as such, but animalistic, *** betrayals, sleeping with anyone she chooses. None the less his hatred appears to be based upon love and lust turned dark and sadistic and vengeful, as a consequence of his own feelings for her being unreciprocated (as we know, this perennial theme of revenge/murder occurs as much in life as it is reflected in fiction). He believes she never truly cared for him, even though it seems he loved her from when he was a child and they played happily together on the outskirts of their city, where they lived.
You're never quite sure what is part of his own inner world and temptations and perceptions based on manifestations of rage and frustration, and to what degree he has truly acted out what he refers to: the killing of his wife. You know that he is morbidly consumed by her, and wants to consume her, that he feels humiliated and ridiculed and belittled by her behaviour (sleeping with whomever she chooses, it seems, and that everyone else knows this to be the case).
At first his relentless use of certain stock phrases may irritate - at first you think, `is this just bad writing'; `doesn't Hidayat/Hedayat KNOW he's repeating himself?!' But of course, HE'S not repeating himself obsessively, rewinding and spiralling down and up and back and forth like a distressed mouse in a maze: you are in his CHARACTER'S world. These stock phrases are typically eery and haunting and remote from our real world, and include `I am writing only for my shadow', `I saw a bent old man sitting at the foot of a cypress treet with a young girl [... ] The old man was biting the nail of the index finger of his left hand'. He often hears a `mocking laugh, of a quality to make the hairs on one's body stand on end' (p.98); the laugh issues from his mouth - sometimes he's aware of this, sometimes not and attributes to others, the darkness, another. And there are many other memories/recollected phrases, besides. They're hugely effective; you go from thinking what the hell?! - to god, this is bloody great!; this guy REALLY is deranged; so you feel for him, yet he could well be a sadistic murderer of his own wife, so you also feel disgusted, appalled; yes, horribly conflicted. The narrative, then, contains real power.
It ends as it begins, the character with his psychosis, his derangement, his endless circling, repeating thoughts and memories and hallucinatory memories; his guilt weighing down on him . or is that weight he feels on his chest bearing down on him actually the body/remains of his wife? You decide.
This story is well worth the read, despite its cover price (after all, it's only 108 pages in length!). It also deserves a wider reputation, along with the publication and promotion of some of his other works into English; I understand that the author during his lifetime was regarded as the foremost writer of fiction in Iran, and English reviewers alone raved about it - from Tom Stoppard, The Guardian, Ted Hughes, The Times Literary Supplement to Alan Warner. Once read, you will never forget it. Highly recommended. Now I can't wait to read a collection of his short stories: Three Drops of Blood (Oneworld Modern Classics) (Oneworld Classics).