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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. Hedayat's short stories reflect his deeply pessimistic world view and his love for the heritage of his country. His most famous tale is The Blind Owl (1937). 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' tr.  Iraj Bashiri)

Sadeq Hedayat was born in 1903 into a family of influential landowners, the son of Hedayat Gholi Khan-e Hedayat, and Ozra-Zivar-Ol-Moluk Hedayat.  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 became a judge of the Supreme Court. Other brother became a general and a commander of the Military Academy.

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, graduating in 1925. At the age of eighteen, Hedayat published a study of Umar Khayyam's Ruba'iyyat.  He argued in the work that  "Khayyam's dark thoughts, his reflections on the tenuousness of life and the instablity of the world, his awareness of the limitations of knowledge, and especially his observation of the injustices of man, and the hypocrisy of those around himself, led him from scepticism to pessimism."

Originally Hedayat  was sent to Europe to study "architectural engineering", 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.  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 Kafka's short story 'In the Penal Colony' with extensive notes and other European writers, especially in the late 1940s. 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 the periodical Iranshahr in February 1927. However, Homa Katouzian has argued in Sadeq Hedayat: The Life and Literature of an Iranian Writer (1992, p. 40), that  there is no evidence that Hedayat had read any Rilke at the time.

Late in April in 1927, Hedayat  tried to commit suicide by jumping into Marne from a bridge. He was rescued and later recalled, that "Unknown to me, a young couple were making love in a boat right under the bridge. The fellow immediately jumped into the river and took me out". To his friend Taqi Razavi he said in a letter, "Regarding the academic work I'm not worse than any other student. . . . But taking and passing the exams is out of the question."

Returning to Iran in 1930, Hedayat published his first collection of short stories, Zinda be-Gur  (Buried Alive) and his first play, Parvin dukhtar-e Sasan (Parvin the Sassanian Girl) In Tehran he became the central figure of progressive circles and began to develop his interests in Iranian history, folklore, and traditional beliefs. With Mojtaba Minovi, Mas'ud Farzad and Bozorg Alavia he founded in 1932 club called Rab'a, which attacked conservative literary establishment. To earn his living Hedayat worked at the National Bank of Iran, the Chamber of Commerce, and the General Department of Constructions.

Hedayat's second collection of short stories, Se Qatreh Khun (1932),  was followed by Sayeh Rowshan (1933). These collections 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.

Hedayat's 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 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 run were sent to his friends to Europe, but Hedayat's masterpiece was not published in Iran until 1941. In the 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.

Back in Tehran, Hedayat worked for a construction company and the National Bank of Iran and then joined the Journal of Music. He also served for the Faculty of Fine Arts of Tehran University in various capacities. 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. 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 left  Iran at the end of 1950 and settled in Paris. On April 4, 1951, he took his own life by gassing himself. The circumstances of his death are still under debate. Hedayat was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. In 2006, many of his works were banned by  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime.  Since 2008, Iran Open Publishing Group has been publishing Hedayat's Complete Works in  Farsi language.  

For further reading: The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to Present, ed. Michael D. Sollars (2010);  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); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed.  Steven R. Serafin (1999); 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 by I. Bashiri (1974); Modern Persian Prose Literature by H. Kamshad (1966) - For further information Sadeq Hedayat  - The Blind Owl (translated by Iraj Bashiri)

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)  
  • Sadeqs 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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