This is the first work of Persian literature I have read – if we don’t count Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran) – and it’s the best thing I’ve read for a while. I’ve been putting off reading it because the blurb sounds depressing but the novel itself is not as depressing as it is mysterious. Chapter 2 feels macabre, and then you get lost in this haze scattered with throwback from Chapter 2. The plot is very cleverly structured, and with the onset of Chapter 4, it feels like a story within a story. There are opium-fuelled visions. Reading feels like going through a hall of mirrors where blurry shadows and soft lights mingle. And there is not a blind owl in sight (there’s just a metaphor of an owl).
The translation is magnificent. I wish there was some biographical note on the translator. It made me want to look them up, but all I could find was Elvis Costello.
Very vivid descriptions, for example:
“The central feature of the city landscape as seen from my window is a wretched little butcher’s shop directly opposite our house. It gets through a total of two sheep per day. I can see the butcher every time I look out of the window. Early each morning a pair of gaunt, consumptive-looking horses are led up to the shop. They have a deep, hollow cough and their emaciated legs, terminated by blunt hoofs, give one the feeling that their fingers have been cut off in accordance with some barbarous law and the stumps plunged into boiling oil. Each of them has a pair of sheep carcases slung across its back. The butcher raises his greasy hand to his henna-dyed beard and begins by appraising the carcases with a buyer’s eye. He selects two of them and feels the weight of their tails with his hand. Finally he lugs them across and hangs them from a hook at the entrance to the shop. The horses set off, breathing hard. The butcher stands by the two bloodstained corpses with their gashed throats and their staring bloody-lidded eyes bulging from the bluish skulls. He pats them and feels the flesh with his fingers. Then he takes a long bone-handled knife and cuts up their bodies with great care, after which he smilingly dispenses the meat to his customers. How much pleasure he derives from all these operations! I am convinced that they give him the most exquisite pleasure, even delight. Every morning at this time the thick-necked yellow dog which has made our district his preserve is there outside the butcher’s shop. His head on one side, he gazes regretfully with his innocent eyes at the butcher’s hand. That dog also understands. He also knows that the butcher enjoys his work” (43-44).
Quite sensuous too: women’s mouths (and legs) taste like the stub end of a cucumber, acrid and bitter; sandalwood oil burning in lamps, the odds-and-ends on display on the peddler’s canvas smell of rust, a young boy’s hair is described as date-coloured.
My favourite lines:
“The sun, like a golden knife, was steadily paring away the edge of the shade beside the walls” (61).
“Yes, I had seen on my wife’s face the mark of the two dirty, decayed teeth between which [her lover] used to recite the Arabic verses of the Koran” (90).
There were explanatory notes at the end, two of them are amusing:
“It is the custom on the last Wednesday before Nouruz for people to disguise themselves and go begging. The alms received on this occasion are believed to bring good luck” (108).
“It was popularly believed women could become pregnant through using the public baths, which were frequented (at different hours) by men also. The belief could be exploited to provide an explanation of otherwise inexplicable pregnancies” (ibid).
Hedayat’s Three Drops of Blood has been translated into Turkish (so has this one); I think I’ll look for it in the book fair this year. And the translator, Mehmet Kanar, has his office ten feet away from mine 😉