|The Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat (1903-51). Courtesy New York Times.|
by Amir-Hussein Radjy, New York Times
In April 1951, the police in Paris called on my great-grandfather, Prince Mohamed-Hussein Firouz, to identify a dead body. It was that of Sadeq Hedayat, who is today eulogized as Iran’s great literary modernist. Days before, Hedayat had sealed up the apartment on Rue Championnet where he was staying and opened up the oven’s gas valve before lying down on the kitchen floor.
In Tehran, Firouz had known Hedayat, the son of aristocrats who moved in the same courtly and literary circles. An army officer who was educated in czarist Russia and fastidious about his dress, Firouz carried a trim mustache and tortoiseshell eyeglasses, and read Le Figaro daily. While men like Firouz easily found their place under Iran’s army-led monarchy, Hedayat did not.
In the early 20th century, Iranians of their class proudly appropriated European culture, wore Sulka cravats and sprinkled their Persian with French expressions — as Hedayat did in letters when describing existentialism in France as démodé, or praising Henry Miller and James Joyce for their originalité. Among the last interloping foreign words of his published Persian letters is psychose. “They diagnosed me with psychosis and granted me leave for two months of recovery in France,” he writes, after a visit to the doctor in Tehran.
“As long as Hedayat was alive no one understood him,” the intellectual Jalal Al-e-Ahmad said of his literary mentor months after Hedayat’s death. “Perhaps no one took him seriously.” Today Hedayat is spoken of not only as Iran’s first modern writer but also, as one critic suggests, the first “modern Iranian” tout court. His biography has become almost entirely entwined with his most famous work, BLIND OWL (Penguin Classics, 87 pp., paper, $14), which arrives in a new English translation this year. Posthumous Persian editions carried a cover with an owl wearing Hedayat’s signature round eyeglasses, or the author’s head growing into the form of the nightbird. Two years after the author’s death, Roger Lescot published a French translation that André Breton praised as a masterpiece of surrealism. The novel, its Parisian publisher said, was “the curse of a dream that creeps into reality.”