Thankfully, neither of these fascinating short novels fits into the grisly genre of “ghost stories” or “tales of madness,” partly because their authors self-consciously manipulate staid spine-tingling formulas.
The Blind Owl by Saghegh Hedayat. Translated from the Farsi by D. P. Costello. Introduction by Porochista Khakpour. Grove Press, 146 pages, $14.
The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost by Kim Sok-pom. Translated from the Japanese, and with an Introduction by Cindi L. Textor. Columbia University Press, 144 pages, $24.50.
Reviewed by Bill Marx
Before talking about the artful complexity in The Blind Owl or the satiric playfulness in The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost, attention must be paid, especially during the Halloween season, to their memorable images of horror, from the macabre hallucinogenic visions that bedevil the narrators in Saghegh Hedayat’s haunting tale of mental meltdown to the waves of blood that surge through Kim Sok-pom’s disturbing send-up (?) of the tall tale, an exploration of the “living dead” anchored in the real-life brutality exercised by the South Korean government on an armed peasant uprising in the island of Cheju-do in 1948. Make no mistake about it – both books are more than a little scary, mainly because they bottle up Gothic energies rather than let them run wild.
In her introduction to The Blind Owl, contemporary novelist Prorochista Khakpour pays homage to the power of Hedayat’s novel, a cornerstone of contemporary Iranian literature that endures (since its serialization in 1941–1942) as both a critical and popular success, despite periodic censorship in Hedayat’s homeland. As a child, Khakpour wanted to read it badly, but her Iranian father refused to have it in the house, insisting that he would see to it that “she never got her hands on it …” because “it had caused many suicides in Iran after it was published. …. And, well, if you must know, the author also committed suicide.” Hedayat gassed himself to death in 1951; his masterpiece reflects a sensibility that doesn’t rebel against the solace of religion so much as finds it purely of aesthetic interest
Of course, when Khakpour became older she read the dangerous book. Surprisingly, given the build-up, The Blind Owl not only met her expectations but exceeded them. Not that the novel made her suicidal, though she found it disturbing. She saw that Hedayat treats madness with the wizardly acuity and finesse of Edgar Allan Poe. Khakpour mentions Franz Kafka as another influence on the book, but for me the book melds many of Poe’s central motifs – solipsism edging into dementia, the decomposition of mind and body, the perverse attraction of self-destruction – with modernist techniques. The result is an intricate version of “A Tell Tale Heart” that’s set in a hall of mirrors. Heydayat is the real missing artistic link, rather than the ghastly American H.P. Lovecraft, between Poe and the sophisticated psychological horror of today.
The Blind Owl is divided into two parts: in the first, a young opium-besotted narrator, who ekes out a living by illustrating pens, has a vision of a mysterious woman (“An angel of hell”) who embodies a delusive key to the universe: “One glance from her and mysteries and secrets would no longer have existed for me.” Her apparent demise sends her monomaniacal suitor, who at one point contemplates necrophilia, “falling into an infinite abyss in an everlasting night.” The second half of the novel grows out of the the first half, but it features an older, much more aggressively insane narrator, also addicted to opium, obsessed with murdering his despised wife, whom he believes is unfaithful. As his body mysteriously decomposes, surreal images and incidents (such as that of men battling with cobras in pitch black rooms) return from the earlier section of the book, though in twisted or ‘reverse negative” form.
Through the intricate patterning, the exotic imagery, the creepy crawl to the inevitable act of violence, Heydayat elegantly conveys the most harrowing nightmares of the inner life: “The sensation of horror as usual aroused in me a feeling of exquisite, intoxicating pleasure which made my head swim and my knees give way and filled me with nausea.” The Blind Owl, in D.P. Costello’s solid 1957 translation, lives up to its international reputation as an extraordinary depiction of the clotted spirit, the dissolute mind dedicated to constructing emblems of its fate, consciousness trapped in a self-made web of love and hate, spirituality and degradation, pleasure and pain. If the book leaves you shaken don’t blame me for putting it into your hands.
Kim Sok-Pom’s The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost, first published in 1970, also imagines a form of death-in-life, though the story’s folk tale approach, with its sardonic supernatural trappings, takes a more overtly political form, perhaps because it was written by a zainichi, “a permanent resident of Japan who is not of Japanese ancestry.” Kim was born in Japan; his Korean parents immigrated from the island of Cheju-do. The author chose to write in Japanese, but there is no mistaking his existential sense of humanity lost somewhere betwixt and between – between colonial subject and colonizer, human and inhuman, heaven and hell. The book appears be an “inspiring” yarn of the marginal (perhaps in ghostly form) striking back at the tyrannical, but it consistently undercuts being a simple allegory of good versus evil, suggesting that sin has spread to the point that “heaven and earth are full of bitter spirits who keep screaming and searching for something…”
The book’s protagonist, a priest named Mandogi, is a physically strong but mentally limited man whose elemental religious belief, despite his sadistic mistreatment by the powerful, strengthens his sense of morality. His instinctual inner life is governed by a simple piety that makes him easy to take advantage of and at times comical. Still, some find his humanity ironically threatening: “He had a habit of staring gently at people, his eyes glowing deeply like those of an innocent, unselfish child. People couldn’t stand his stare for long, but he didn’t know how else to look at them.” Yet Mandogi’s unearthly (Dostoyevskian?) saintliness doesn’t restrain him from an act of violent revenge.
Mandogi’s vengeance, triggered by the Four-Three Incident of 1948, is symptomatic of the heinous horrors taking place daily on Cheju-do. With the apparent complicity of the American government, the South Korean police and special forces are crushing an armed peasant revolt – perhaps controlled by communist sympathizers – with sadistic brutality. The authorities are burning villages, raping women, torturing anyone suspected of being a rebel. (“In our Republic of Korea,” boasts a police captain, “as long as you don’t agree with commie ideas, you’re allowed to rape, steal, and murder.”) Compounding this vision of degradation, Kim includes a flashback to Mandogi’s bleak time as a work slave in a Japanese chromium mine. The predominate color of the latter part of the book is red, from images of conflagrations and subversive political “reds” to scenes awash in blood (“In the blink of an eye, the room has become a slaughterhouse, the room swelling with blood, filthy blood”). Kim intimates that this is history’s horror show, scarlet crimes repressed deep in the crevices of Korean and Japanese memory.
This may make the book sound grim, but it isn’t. Kim balances, albeit clumsily, a number of emotional tones, from the fractured fairy tale doings of Mandogi’s life in the temple to his truly bizarre sexual encounters, instances of apocalyptic terror giving way to wry comedy, such as this amusing description of an officer struggling to record a prisoner’s forced confession: “This was the first time he was asked to write something down, and he couldn’t get the tip of his pen to touch down gently, as if it was a plane crash landing.” Translator Cindi L.Texor is generally up to the challenge, but sometimes her sentences leave the reader a bit baffled: ” The violent sound, which had emphasized the silence and reticence in the room, was resounding in its emptiness.”
The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost succeeds as a very dark black comedy, almost Swiftian in its ferocity. Even “ghosts,” such as the hapless Mandogi, have to rethink how they go about frightening flesh-and-blood targets who have been coarsened by unspeakable atrocities: “On this island, where the victims of untimely deaths are piled high, all the way to the heavens, perhaps it could be said that the ghosts have had to reevaluate how they go about haunting.” For Kim, the barbarity of the 20th century meant reinventing the ghost story.