The Short Version: A young man descends into despair and paranoia after the mysterious death of a bewitching woman. But what of his story can be trusted?
The Review: Here’s one of those books that might never cross your radar, as a Western reader – even a widely read one. And yet Hedayat is, by many accounts, the most important modern writer to come out of Iran. In fact, his work is still provocative enough that some of it is still banned in his home country – more than 60 years after he died. I’m not sure that I can speak to why he’s so controversial, having only read this one book, but I do see why Hedayat is an important writer in the literary continuum – and I find myself, even several weeks after reading it, feeling vaguely unsettled by this novel.
The best analogy to another author’s work is, without a doubt, the oeuvre of Edgar Allan Poe – but Albert Camus comes in a very close second. All three men excel at creating a sense of creeping unease, not quite manifesting as “dread” or “terror” but edging ever closer over the course of any given story. I’m reminded in particular of Camus’ The Fall and the sense that the reader has become guilty by association in hearing the story of Clamence’s fall from grace – because the reader feels a similar guilt here. And the terror of the novel comes not from any particular frights but rather the general sense of having gotten way too close to a completely unhinged mind. Insanity isn’t catching, but that doesn’t stop us from fearing that it might be.
The novel – more of a novella, really, as it clocks in at less than 130 pages – also has a formal inventiveness, with a structure that is confusing even once you’ve finished. Our unnamed narrator, a guy who makes pen cases (sidenote: how beautiful are these? Wish this was more of a trend in modern society…), has a series of strange visions that culminate in the death of this beautiful woman who he has been trying to find.
Except that maybe he killed her? With poisoned wine? But maybe the woman doesn’t exist at all and he’s just mad… and Hedayat keeps the reader way off-balance as he sends us back (or is it forward?) in time to see the narrator with his wife and his increasing illness. “Life is nothing but a fiction, a mere story,” the narrator tells us – and it’s hard not to wonder how much of his story is just that: a fiction.
The horrors that the narrator experiences – the withered old man, the creepy butcher, the sense of the town having oddly emptied out around him – are reminiscent (to a modern reader) of everything from Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” to Don’t Look Now: that sense of a pursuit through a place suddenly confusing, of not even being sure what you’re chasing. But when coupled with the general sense of insanity that becomes ever-more-apparent in the narrator, I found it difficult to keep track of just about anything – and not in a tremendously positive way. As the narrator became ever more unreliable, the narrative began to fracture. Perhaps this was the point, and if so, it’s the most remarkable expression of a corrupted mind I’ve maybe ever read.
But there’s something too impressionistic about it all to make me think that there isn’t a larger cohesion that the reader is meant to come away with – and I didn’t. Some of this might’ve been that something was lost in translation, although D.P. Costello’s translation is quite readable and easy-going and so I don’t think so. It may just be a failure of my own readership; I saw and delighted in the specific moments of this novel but the larger ones, the overarching sense of a single thread of the narrative, escaped me.
Rating: 3 out of 5. A menacing tale of mental distress in the tradition of Poe and Camus, but coming to us from a part of the world many will never experience – either in literature or general culture or general life. Hedayat is certainly a skilled writer and he captures the crack-up of a mind quite well – perhaps too well, even. Something keeps this book from completely coming together, even as individual moments linger in the mind. No matter what, though, I’m glad I read it.