Hedayat’s last night out in Paris
April 10, 2006
From M. F. Farzaneh's “Ashenayee ba Sadegh Hedayat,” (5th ed., Nashr-e Markaz, Tehran, 2004). Translated by M. Maleki.
Sunday, April 1, 1951
Around five o’clock we reached the hotel. The person standing next to the bank of keys was a temporary weekend help because he had a hard time finding the room key. The hotel was empty and the housekeeping lady could no longer be seen.
The room had been cleaned and tidied. The newspapers that I had brought that morning had been placed at the bottom of the wastebasket to keep the trash from falling out.
Hedayat said: “Look through the window at the hotel garden while I change.” I turned my back to him and looked out the window: a small empty yard with a tall chimney stack could be seen.
-- Well, did you enjoy it?
-- And how!
Hedayat had put on an ironed shirt and a bean-flowered coat.
-- It is now time to head out for leisure and pleasure in the debaucherydistrict.
We each had a glass of the cognac left in the bottle and took the metro to Barbes station. We ascended the steep stairs of the Montmartre district, strolled around Tertre square, and looked at the paintings of the street sellers.
-- In my youth, someone prompted me to have my profile made on charcoal paper.
-- Come, let me show you.
A girl was sitting on a stool in front of a young person who quickly carved the profile of the girl on a black cardboard with scissors. I started to laugh:
-- So it seems even back then you had interests in many fields.
-- My homeland starved me of my patience!... Now, let me show you a place that will leave you flabbergasted.
We descended the stairs in front of Sacré Coeur church and with quick steps reached Rochechouart boulevard.
A short distance from Pigalle the Wise Sq., a tall, astute man approached Hedayat and greeted him in French. Hedayat introduced us but I did not catch his name. Then they started chatting like old friends. The man asked how Hedayat was and when he had arrived in Paris and how long he would be staying:
-- How long am I staying? The longer, the better. As long as I can. I might even settle here.
I was stunned at Hedayat’s answer. Didn’t he have difficulty getting French émigré visa and had to report to the authorities every fifteen days to renew his visa?
-- Where are you staying?
-- At a third-rate hotel ... if not fourth-rate!
-- Are you satisfied?
-- No, I’m looking for another place. Perhaps you can help find me a small apartment. Would you be able to?
-- Why not!... as a matter of fact, I know of a small apartment not too far from here, near Rue Caulaincourt, that is empty and the owner is a distant relation of mine. I will ask him tonight. You might be able to rent it.
-- If you could arrange that, I will break a bottle and we will celebrate one night until dawn. Does this apartment have a kitchen?
-- Yes, of course.
-- Is the stove electric or gas?
-- The stoves of old houses in this neighborhood are usually gas. Are you planning on cooking?
-- Yes. I am fed up with restaurants. The French think everyone must have appetizer and desert, and when they learn I do not eat meat, they frown and become hostile. I want a kitchen so at least I’ll be able to fry an egg or two ... the way I like it.
The man got a chuckle at the thought of Hedayat cooking a meal. I was beginning to laugh also: the image of Hedayat in the kitchen, busy cooking a meal, why not even an apron?
-- You can count on me. Even if this studio does not work out, I will find you a suitable place. Give me the address and telephone number of your hotel, I will let you know promptly ... perhaps even tomorrow.
-- The address is straight-forward. Hotel Denfert Rochereau ... (then, looking at me) perhaps you know the hotel’s number?
I took out my pocket calendar and gave the number to Hedayat’s friend.
-- Where are you going now?
-- We are sightseeing. We started out in the morning and will wander until we drop. Today is Sunday and even God takes a break from his work?
-- Unfortunately I am busy tonight, otherwise I would have joined you.
-- There is plenty of time. Especially for me, I have lots of time on my hands which I must either sell wholesale or kill outright. Whenever you get a chance, give me a call. The sooner the better.
-- Take my number too. I might get back to you about the apartment as soon as tomorrow.
I took out my pen to give Hedayat, but he had pen and paper in his pocket, and he jotted down his friend’s telephone number, and we said goodbye and went our way.
-- I didn’t quite hear his name. Who was he?
-- His name is Saenger; like the sewing machine Singer. In the old days he was in Tehran. He is a strange creature. He stays up nights and sleeps during the day. He is an interesting fellow.
-- Do you think he’ll be able to find you an apartment?
-- Why not? He volunteered himself.
-- So you want to become head chef of the state? (letting out a chuckle)
-- What is the reason for your enjoyment?
-- Have you forgotten how in Tehran you recounted that on some trip, instead of lunch, you cooked pistachio and walnut rice and your friends became ill?
-- What was wrong with it? If I hadn’t forgotten, it wouldn’t have burned. Anyway, the food that I cook is no worse than restaurant’s fried potatoes ... at least it is certain that I do not cook with horse lard.
At a street corner next to a large sign was posted: Cabaret du Néant.
-- This is it. This is the place I wanted to take you so you’d be amazed ... let’s not waste time ... let’s go in.
Hedayat was so jubilant at his discovery that I scarce dared tell him I know this strange and peculiar place. One time I had visited it with Cyrus Zaka and Bijan Jalali. It was named cabaret, but in reality it had nothing that resembled a normal cabaret. No music, no dancing, no dancers.
The scheme was such that, after entering the place, they kept the customers in the dark-ceiling entrance room until enough people had gathered. Then a person wearing a long Catholic clergy’s robe would enter from the narrow door and lead the customers. The walls of the rest of the hallways were colored black and purple, bordered in some places with a green masking tape.
The first large room was where the audience of the previous show made their exit. In that place, which wasn’t unlike the cold room of a cemetery, several coffins were placed on stools, and as with tables at a café or restaurant, drinks would be placed on them.
In the same room pictures of famous persons of the previous centuries were hung, and as the guide recounted haunting stories of those characters with a heavy-toned voice, a light from behind the picture frame would turn on and reveal a grotesquely skeletal figure of them.
Next we would enter the main hall where the show, based on the technique of fantasmagorie, would be performed: the shadow of actors, or objects, would appear on the darkened stage without they themselves being visible, and everything took on a surreal fantasy look.
Now with Hedayat we passed through the rooms, and the last room, right after the shrouded-white ghost room, was the coffin room in which we were served a simple drink. Hedayat said quietly:
-- I like this Néant (naught) cabaret because they make fun of death and fatalism. Not morbid fun, but fun with death itself ... empty and endless ... like dying itself.
At the exit, the fake priest shook our hands, and like the guides at some cemeteries or museums, held out his left hand for a tip.
Darkness had fallen and a good chunk of the night had passed. Pigalle neighborhood had become alive. The bars, nude cabarets, restaurants and cafés had turned on their lights. A group of North African Arabs were peddling smuggled American cigarettes, and showing devious pictures. The streetwalkers were loitering on the sidewalks in front of suspicious-looking hotels ...
-- A few nights ago I had come here for leisure and a prostitute came up to me – she was young and pretty. She lead me to a hotel room and took off half her clothes. How ever fastidiously I insisted that she undo her bra, she refused. Having lost interest, I paid her and without doing anything left the room. The woman was shocked and could not figure me out.
-- Why? Why did you do nothing?
-- If one must do it in a suite, what is the use?... and that with a lowly prostitute.
A moment later, without my asking, he added: “Actually, I have no taste for anything.” I remained silent, until I realized it was dinner time:
-- Will you permit me to treat you to dinner?
-- I am at your service.
-- What do you crave?
-- What? (he thought for a moment, then quickly ... ) No. I want to take you to a place more frightening than you have ever seen ... a place found only in Paris. It is expensive and I will make the sacrifice and cover the expenses myself.
-- Where is this scary place?
-- It should be around here. Perhaps it’d be wise to ask someone knowledgeable.
And without any hesitation, he entered a café. He talked for some time with the waiter then came out smiling.
-- It is found ... in the next alley.
On the wall next to a small door was written in large letters: Chez Madame Arthur.
A tall woman with rather elongated nails and eyelashes, whitish blonde hair and wearing sandal slippers was guiding us into the cabaret. The area was rather spacious and the tables were situated around a vacant center area so tightly that no customer was left with their back to the center. A small platform was situated next to the wall presumably serving as the stage.
At this hour there were no other customers besides us. Hedayat asked the lady guide:
-- Is it possible to have dinner?
-- Of course it is ... but the show starts at 11 o’clock.
And without hesitation, he pulled up a table and we sat behind it next to each other.
I was beginning to feel Hedayat is undecided and unsatisfied with the atmosphere there.
-- Do you approve?
-- Approve of what?
I looked around: several tall, heavy-set women, like the first woman, were hastily coming and going; fortunately an older couple entered and their attention was focused on these two new customers.
-- Do you know what this place is?
-- A local cabaret in Montmartre. There are many places like this. In Cité Universitaire they give free admission tickets to early customers to come and fill the tables when the cabarets are not busy. Just this summer, before you arrived in Paris, along with two other friends, we got some of these tickets and went to see a striptease show. They sat us at a table close to the stage. They gave us each a glass of white wine and placed an ice bucket containing an empty bottle of champagne in front of us. The table was so close to the stage that we got sore eyes and at the first chance we left.
-- No, this is no ordinary cabaret. If you had any musical knowledge you would realize that the ballad “Madame Arthur” sung by the famous Yvette Guilbert is the namesake of this place ... besides, this is not a place for just anybody. Like Montagne Ste Geneviève, it is a venue for those in-the-know.
People in the know? Montagne Ste Geneviève? No form of acceptable decorum is practiced there. Complete freedom, as long it does not infringe on others’, is the norm. Not only do its customers comprise all walks of life and professions, from painters to pawnbrokers to students, but its cast work alongside well-known artists and actors. Gays, lesbians, freelancing partners in search of excitement, good-timers and ordinary people make up the customers who, with little to spend in its smoky atmosphere, felt that a nightlife and good time was not the exclusive purview of fancy snobbish places.
But I witnessed no such situation at Madame Arthur. At the very least, it resembled a moderately expensive restaurant with no doors and windows.
Perhaps my perception was due to our arriving early?
One of the tall, long-nailed ladies placed the menu in front of me. I wasn’t very hungry and knew that Hedayat wouldn’t pick anything either from the menu. We ordered a whisky for Hedayat and a complete dinner and beer for me. Hedayat did not touch the food on account he had had dinner.
When the lady brought our drinks and I said “thank you Madame,” I noticed her overly cosmetic face and she winked at me. Her eye lashes were fake, and under a layer of greasy powder, traces of a beard could be seen.
Hedayat noticed my bemusement, smiled and whispered: Merde*.
-- Do you know what this place reminds me of?
-- Don’t utter some snobbish Montagne-Ste-Geneviève nonsense.
-- No. Reminds me more of the end of Hermann Hesse’s novel, Steppenwolf.
-- That’s a compliment, otherwise we wouldn’t have come here.
The number of customers was increasing and the musicians were tuning their instruments. A man wearing ladies clothes went on stage and after singing “Madame Arthur,” sang a folk song and at the end lifted his skirt to reveal his hairy, large legs. The audience laughed and cheered. I too expressed my opinion:
-- One is reminded of our own passion plays (tazieh), where men play the part of women.
-- Blasted! You keep mentioning that. Instead of being thankful that I’ve brought you to a place you never dreamed of, you want to drag me on a donkey back to the past (takieh**).
Hedayat frowned. He emptied his glass, and I regretted what I had said.
Why had Hedayat come here? With that strange and peculiar day we had spent, what had drawn him to this place?
It’s true that Hedayat had the temperament of romantics like Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe – as much as could be gathered from their biographies. It is true that his spiritual aspirations knew no bounds. He was always in search of discovering extraordinary and inexplicable places and situations. But this did not reconcile with what I had witnessed that day or the expression on his face in the hotel room and later in the rain. Perhaps it was I who could not reconcile my own lifestyle with his demeanor.
To mend things after my misconceived remark, I said:
— Once you rent the apartment, and because it is in this neighborhood, we will visit this place so many times that it will be impossible to drag you back to takieh.
He gave me an awkward look:
-- As if I have money pouring out of my pockets! These places cost money. And money doesn’t grow on trees.
One blunder after another. Inappropriate intrusion! I had better remain silent.
It was nearly midnight and we needed to get going if we wanted to reach the last train. This was an inappropriate idea too. We can surely find taxis!
Hedayat seemed tired from my off-the-mark remarks, or perhaps from this long day which, no doubt, had followed a sleepless night, and he himself suggested we leave Madame Arthur.
-- Do you still wish to see the Cirque Pinder?
-- Why do you ask?
-- They have camped at Porte d'Orléans, which is near Cité Universitaire, and I can get tickets.
-- Why not!
-- When is the devil’s doing.
-- Is tomorrow night good?
-- Why not.
I knew I shouldn’t press the case. He might change his mind.
Hedayat paid a hefty price for a dinner he didn’t have and we came out and it was agreed that tomorrow evening we should go to Pinder circus.
[ ... halfway through the circus, Hedayat abruptly parts company, with Farzaneh trying to stifle his departure. – tr.]
-- Then, when shall I see you next?
-- One of these days.
-- Like tomorrow?
-- No! Tomorrow at noon I have an appointment with Saenger. He called this morning. I can’t tomorrow; the day after or another day. Ya hagh!
And he descended the metro stairs.
I hadn’t taken more than a few steps when he called out:
-- Tomorrow, early morning, can you make it to the front of the bank, your bank? I need the assets that are in your account.
-- So you are going to rent the apartment?
-- Bligh me! It is still uncertain. First I have to see the place. In any case, I need my remaining francs, if you haven’t gobbled it all.
-- No, I haven’t touched your money.
-- Tomorrow, then, at 9 o’clock, in front of the bank. Later!
I stood there and watched him get far. I don’t know why, but I remembered the start of Dostoyevsky’s novel, Notes FromUnderground.
At usual, Hedayat had his left-hand fingers in his coat pocket such that his elbow hugged his waste. His covered head was hunched and he was walking with bent knees.
I was so distraught at his words and his figure that I wanted to run up to him and give him consolation, but I didn’t dare. We never had such a casual relationship.
When I returned to my small room in Alésia Way and saw the two plastic yellow tulips we had snatched from the Cachan cemetery, I was confounded. I couldn’t sleep. I turned on the light on top of my steel-frame bed and for the first time, yes, for the first time since meeting Hedayat, I made notes of the events of April 1st. With the hope that tomorrow when I see him he will be feeling better, I went to sleep and had disturbing dreams. In the morning, I went to Saint Michel boulevard early and stood in front of the bank until Hedayat arrived at precisely 9 o’clock.
He was clean shaven with collar and tie, his hat, and he was smiling.
The check I wrote for a hundred thousand francs (a thousand francs today) came out wrong and I tore it up.
-- It is evident that you are worse than me when it comes to keeping your accounts.
I wrote another check and got the money. They handed me ten bills as big as half a newspaper page, which I passed on to Hedayat. He stuffed them in the leather wallet he carried on him.
-- And this is the last of my impressive funds! Later!
I thwarted his departure:
-- Don’t you want to have some coffee?
-- Not right now. I’m busy. Another time.
-- When is the devil’s doing.
And he parted. Like a bird. Like a typhoon. Like a whirlwind.
I waited until Wednesday, and on Wednesday morning I telephoned his hotel. He wasn’t in his room. I went to the hotel and left him a note.
Thursday afternoon, I tried to contact him twice. The hotel manager said he had checked out. Where had he gone? He hadn’t left his new address with the hotel, and this seemed natural to me. Hadn’t he arranged to get his letters in care of Fereydoon Hoveyda [at the embassy]? But why hadn’t he left a message for me? Perhaps he has rented the apartment that Mr. Saenger spoke about and he will get in touch with me later.
Regrettably a week passed and I inquired of him several times from his nephew Bijan Jalali.
-- For crying out loud! Let him be! What do you want from him? I’m sure he is somewhere, and you are troubling over it for nothing.
-- I am worried. Last time I saw him he wasn’t feeling very well.
-- Nonsense. All of it is a charade. He is that kind of a person.
On the tenth of April I had gone for lunch with Cyrus Zaka to the Paris University cafeteria. We hadn’t yet placed our food on the table when one of the Iranian students, whose name I have forgotten and who was older than us, came and blurted out:
-- Do you know what has happened? This morning I had gone to the embassy. There was a lot of commotion. Dr. Shahid Nourai is on his death-bed, and worse yet, Sadegh Hedayat committed suicide last night and the embassy staff were going to get his body.
At first I could not believe it. I asked for further explanation. Had he been killed or had he really committed suicide?
-- He had plugged all the gaps in the windows and door with cotton and, so it wouldn’t burden anyone, he had placed the money for his shroud and burial in his side wallet in plain view.
-- A hundred thousand francs?
-- How do you know?
I did not answer.
[ ... ]
M. F. Farzaneh
Cannes, 19 July 1987
* Hedayat’s oft-used French curse word. – tr.
** takieh – a local religious gathering place; place of mourning and lamentation. – tr.