Ali Salami

The Behind-the-Curtain Doll By Sadeq Hedayat [Arusak Posht-e Pardeh]

The summer vacation had begun. In the corridor of the boys’ grammar school in Le Havre, the boarders left the school whistling and cheering with their suitcases in their hands. Only Mehrdad was standing still, holding his hat like a merchant whose ship had sunk, looking despairingly at his suitcase. The principal with his bald head and protruding belly came up to him and asked: “Are you going too?”

Mehrdad’s ears turned red and he bowed his head. The principal repeated, “We are very sorry that you will not be with us next year. You really were a role model for our students in terms of behavior and manners. But a word of advice from me to you: be less shy, be braver, that’s a flaw for a young man like you. You have to have courage in life!”

Instead of answering, Mehrdad replied: “I too regret leaving your school.”

The principal laughed, patted him on the shoulder, said goodbye, shook his hand and walked away. The school porter carried Mehrdad’s suitcase to the end of Anatole France Street and put him in a cab for him. Mehrdad tipped him and they said goodbye to each other.

Mehrdad had spent nine months at the school in Le Havre to improve his French. The day he parted from his friends in Paris, he went to Le Havre as obedient and mature as a sheep that is reluctant to part from its flock. His behavior and manners at school were praised by the director and the principal. He was obedient, reserved and quiet, studied hard and kept to the school rules. Nevertheless, he was always sad and depressed. Apart from completing tasks and memorizing lessons, he knew nothing else. It seemed as if he was only born to prepare for class, because his thoughts never wandered beyond the school environment and textbooks. He had an ordinary appearance, a yellowish complexion, was tall, thin, had lifeless round eyes, black eyelashes, a short nose and stubble, which he shaved every three days. The regimented life at school, the routine meals, the lessons, the sleeping and waking times had shaped his soul with uniformity. Occasionally, Mehrdad felt a sense of loneliness and deprivation in the high, smoky walls of the school, among students whose thoughts did not match his own, in a language he barely understood, with foreign customs and habits, with different food, like a prisoner feels. On Sundays, when he had a few hours off and went for a walk, he would sit for hours on a bench in the public park in front of the town hall and watch the girls and people walking by, the women knitting, and the sparrows and pigeons roaming freely in the grass. Sometimes he would bring a piece of bread, crumble it up and feed the sparrows, or he would sit on a hill overlooking the lighthouses by the sea and watch the waves and the cityscape, because he had heard that “Lamartine” did the same on Lake Bourget. When the weather was bad, he went to a café to review his lessons. Being rather unsociable, he had no friends or companions and knew no other Iranians with whom he could socialize.

Mehrdad was one of those sheltered boys who had become a proverb in his family in Iran and still blushed from his forehead to his earlobes when they mentioned a woman’s name. The French students teased him, and when they talked about women, dancing, leisure, sports and their romantic escapades, Mehrdad always agreed with them respectfully, without being able to add anything from his own life experiences to their love stories, because he was a mama’s boy, shy, sad and depressed. He had never spoken to a strange woman before, and his parents had filled his head with advice and teachings from a thousand years ago. To make sure he did not lose his way, they had betrothed him to his cousin Derakhshandeh and celebrated the engagement; they considered this the ultimate sacrifice and a great favor they had done their son by raising him to be a chaste, pure-hearted and ethical young man, as was the custom two thousand years ago.

Mehrdad was twenty-four years old, but he lacked the courage, experience, education, cunning and bravery in life that a fourteen-year-old European child might have. He was always sad and reserved, as if he were waiting for a preacher to mount the pulpit so that he could cry. His only romantic memory is limited to the day he left Tehran, when Derakhshandeh came to see him off with teary eyes. But Mehrdad could not find the right words to comfort her, perhaps out of shyness. Although he had grown up in the same house as his cousin and they had played together as children, he still remembered Derakhshandeh until the moment the ship Krasin left Bandar Pahlavi, meandered through the water and the green, humid shores of Iran slowly disappeared into the fog and darkness. He often thought of her during his first months abroad, but gradually he forgot about Derakhshandeh.

During Mehrdad’s studies, there were several vacations at school, but he stayed in school during all these breaks and was busy with his studies. He always promised himself that he would catch up during the three months of summer vacation. After leaving school with a good report card and taking one last look at the smoky facade of the school on Anatole France Street to say goodbye in his heart, he went straight to a boarding house he had seen before. He rented a room and on the very first night, inspired by the romantic tales and adventures of his schoolmates at the Grand Tavern, the casino and others, he decided to go to the casino for the first time. He shaved in the evening, had dinner, and before going to the casino, as it was still early, he took a walk to the Rue de Paris, the busy street of Le Havre that leads to the harbor. Mehrdad walked slowly, quietly observing his surroundings, looking at the shop windows. He had money, he was free, he still had three months to go, and he planned to enjoy his freedom this evening by going to the casino. This beautiful building, which he had walked past so many times without ever venturing inside, he would visit tonight, and maybe, who knows, a few girls would fall in love with the young man with the broken heart, dark eyes and eyebrows! As he strolled leisurely, he stopped in front of a large shop window and looked inside. His gaze fell on the statue of a woman with blonde hair, who held her head at an angle and smiled. The long eyelashes, the large eyes and white neck, a hand on her hip, her dress in the blue light of the spotlight made the statue seem strangely attractive to him. So much so that he involuntarily stopped, frozen and hypnotized by the sight of her. This was not just a statue, but a woman, no, more than a woman, an angel smiling at him. The dark blue eyes, the noble, heartbreaking smile, a smile beyond his imagination, the slender, delicate, well-proportioned figure, all this surpassed the embodiment of love, thought and beauty that he could imagine. Moreover, this girl did not speak to him; he was not forced to woo her with tricks and lies, did not have to court her, did not have to be jealous, she was always silent, always in a beautiful state that represented the highest of his thoughts and desires. She needed neither food nor clothing, made no excuses, never fell ill and had no expenses. She was always content, always smiling, but more importantly, she never spoke, never expressed an opinion, and there was no fear of their characters clashing. A face that never wrinkled, never changed, her belly never swelled, she never got out of shape. And she was cold too. All these thoughts ran through his mind. If he could touch her, smell her, kiss her, put on the scent he loved, he would not even be ashamed of this woman. Because she would never cheat on him, there would be no formalities between them, and he would always remain the chaste, pure-hearted Mehrdad. But where would he put this statue?

No, none of the women he had ever seen could compare with this statue. Could they ever hold a candle to her? The smile and the expression in her eyes had given this statue an unnatural soul in his eyes. All the lines, colors and proportions that he could imagine under beauty were best embodied in this statue. What surprised him even more was that the statue’s overall appearance was not dissimilar to certain facial expressions of Derakhshandeh, except that Derakhshandeh’s eyes were hazel while the statue’s were blond. But Derakhshandeh was always melancholic and sad, while the smile of this statue evoked joy and a thousand emotions in Mehrdad.

Under the statue was a cardboard sign with the inscription 350 francs. Was it possible to buy this statue for 350 francs? He was prepared to give everything he owned, even his clothes to the shopkeeper, to own this statue. He stared at it for a while, but suddenly he was afraid of being ridiculed. Nevertheless, he could not tear himself away from the sight, he could no longer control it. He dismissed the idea of going to the casino because he felt that his life would be meaningless without this statue, which seemed to embody the crowning achievement of his life. If only this statue could be his, if only he could look at it all the time! Suddenly he realized that perhaps it was not appropriate to stand in front of a shop window with women’s clothes, and he imagined that all eyes were on him, but he did not dare to enter the store and complete the purchase. He wished someone would come out secretly, sell him the statue and take his money so he would not have to do it in public. Then he would kiss that person’s hands and be eternally grateful.

As he looked through the glass, he saw two women in the store talking, one of whom pointed at him. Mehrdad’s face turned as red as a flame; he looked up and saw the name of the store: “Magasin Sigrand” He slowly moved away and took a few steps back.

He walked on involuntarily, his heart racing, barely seeing where he was going. The statue with its enchanting smile lingered before his eyes, and he feared that someone might buy it before he did. He wondered why the others were so indifferent to the statue. Perhaps it was a trick, because he knew that this desire was not natural!

He remembered that he had spent his whole life in the shadows, in darkness. He didn’t love his fiancée, Derakhshandeh. He only showed affection out of obligation to his mother. He knew that it wasn’t easy for him to enter into a relationship with a foreign woman as he had an aversion to dancing, talking, dressing up, flattering and all the necessities that go with it. In addition, his shyness and lack of courage held him back. But this statue was like a beacon that lit up his whole life; like the lighthouse he had often sat next to at night, casting its arc across the sea. Was he so naive? Did he not know that this wish, which went against the general will, would make him a laughing stock? Didn’t he realize that this statue made of cardboard, porcelain, paint and artificial hair was like a doll given to a child? She couldn’t speak, her body wasn’t warm and her face never changed. And yet it was precisely these qualities that Mehrdad loved about the statue. He feared a living person who could speak, whose body was warm, who could agree or disagree with him, who could stir up his jealousy. No, he needed this statue for his life and couldn’t go on living without it. Could he have all that for just 350 francs?

Mehrdad walked through the crowd in a daze, oblivious to everything and everyone around him. He moved like a cardboard figure, like a soul possessed by a demon. He saw a woman with a green scarf and a face full of make-up and followed her aimlessly. She turned into a narrow, eerie alley near the church, with smoke-stained, dark buildings. The woman entered a house from which the sound of a fox trot on a gramophone could be heard, punctuated by a melancholy English song. He stood still until the record ended, but couldn’t hear the music. Who was this woman and why had he followed her? He began to walk again. The red lights of a shabby bar, smugglers, strange faces, small, mysterious cafés tailored for these people passed him by. A cool, damp breeze blew near the harbor, smelling of seaweed, tar and fish oil.

The colorful lights flickered on the iron masts. Amidst the bustle of ships large and small, sailboats and barges, you could see a mixture of workers, thieves and ruffians of all kinds, including the kind of thieves who could steal the kohl out of your eyes. Without thinking, Mehrdad buttoned his coat and straightened his chest, then walked with quicker steps towards Étoufée Street, in front of which a barrier had been erected. A large ship was anchored in the sea, its lights lined up and visible from afar. These ships, which sailed through the sea like small worlds or mobile cities, brought people with different spirits, apparitions and languages from distant lands to the harbor, where they gradually assimilated. These strange people, this unusual life, passed before his eyes one by one, and he scrutinized the painted faces of the women. Was it they who ensnared the men and drove them mad? Wasn’t each of them a statue far inferior to the one behind the shop window? His whole life seemed artificial, illusory and pointless. It was as if he was floating in a thick, sticky substance and couldn’t free himself. Everything seemed ridiculous to him, even the young couple with their arms around each other near the dam seemed absurd. The lessons he had learned, the smoky structure of the school, it all seemed artificial, self-indulgent and trivial. For Mehrdad, there was only one truth, and that was the statue behind the shop window.

Suddenly he turned around and walked through the crowd with deliberate steps. When he reached the “Magasin Sigrand”,” he stopped. He looked again at the statue, which was still in place, as if he had made a decision for the first time in his life. He entered the store. A pretty girl in a black dress and white apron gave him an artificial smile, stepped forward and asked: “Sir, what would you like?”

Mehrdad pointed to the statue behind the glass and said: “This statue.”

“Would you like the pistachio green dress? We also have it in other colors. Please wait a moment. Our employee will try it on for you. You wanted the pistachio green dress for your fiancée, did not you?”

“Sorry, I wanted the statue.”

“The statue? What do you mean, the statue?”

Mehrdad realized that he had made a strange request, but he did not let himself get flustered. As if inspired, he said:

“Yes, the statue as it is, with its dress. I am a foreigner and I own a tailor’s shop. I wanted the statue as it is.”

“Ah, that’s complicated. I will have to ask the store owner.” She turned to another woman and said, “Hey Susan, call Mr. Leon.”

Mehrdad approached the statue, and Mr. Leon, with his gray beard, short stature, rotund body, black clothes and gold watch chain, came up to Mehrdad after speaking to the saleswoman and said, “Sir, you wanted the statue? As we are colleagues, I will give it to you as it is, including the clothes, for 2,200 francs, with a discount of 900 francs. Because it cost us 2,750 francs to make this statue. The dress itself is worth 350 francs. This is the finest statue in pure porcelain, I congratulate you, you must be an expert too. This is the work of the famous artist ‘Rocro’. As we wanted to introduce new statue models, we are selling this statue at a loss, but know that this is an exception as we normally do not sell store fittings to customers. I should also mention that we can crate it for you.”

Mehrdad blushed and did not know how to respond to the shopkeeper’s detailed and friendly speech. Instead of replying, he reached into his side pocket, took out two thousand-franc bills and a five-hundred-franc bill, handed them to the shopkeeper and received three hundred francs in change. Could he live for a month on three hundred francs? What did it matter, because he had reached the maximum of his desire!

Five years after this incident, Mehrdad returned to Tehran with three suitcases, one of which was very large and resembled a coffin. What surprised his family, however, was that Mehrdad behaved very formally towards his fiancée Derakhshandeh and did not even bring her a souvenir. On the third day, his mother scolded him, reminding him that Derakhshandeh had waited for him at home for six years, rejecting several suitors, and that he was obliged to marry her. But Mehrdad listened to her calmly and explained clearly that he had changed his mind and decided never to marry. His mother was upset and blamed his change of heart on his treatment of foreigners and a change in his beliefs. However, they realized that Mehrdad was no longer the obedient and humble son he used to be. This change in his attitude was attributed to his interaction with foreigners and a change in his beliefs. However, upon closer examination of his behavior, they found nothing to contradict his claims. Mehrdad was still the same shy and reserved person, only his way of thinking had changed. Although he was closely observed by several people, no romantic relationships could be detected.

What made the family suspicious of Mehrdad was that he placed a statue of a woman dressed in pistachio green behind the door in his private room, one hand on her hip, the other at her side, smiling. A patterned curtain hung in front of it, and at night, when Mehrdad came home, he would close the doors, play a gramophone record, drink alcohol, pull back the curtain from the statue and then sit mesmerized by her beauty for hours. Sometimes, under the influence of alcohol, he would get up, approach the statue and stroke her hair and chest. His whole romantic life revolved around this, and for him the statue was the embodiment of love, desire and longing.

Over time, his family, especially Derakhshandeh, who was curious about this role, realized that the statue had a secret. Derakhshandeh mockingly called it the “behind-the-curtain doll” Mehrdad’s mother even tried to get him to sell the statue or give Derakhshandeh her dress as a souvenir, but he always refused. Derakhshandeh, on the other hand, tried to win Mehrdad’s heart by adopting the style and taste of the statue. She styled her hair like the statue, had a pistachio green dress tailored in the same style and even chose her shoes in the statue’s image. When Mehrdad was not at home, she would go to his room, stand in front of the mirror and imitate the statue’s pose, tilting her head and smiling as she tried to capture its enigmatic and captivating look. Her slight resemblance to the statue made this easier. Derakhshandeh spent hours comparing her body to the statue’s, trying to match its shape and posture. When Mehrdad came home, she would subtly show herself to him in various ways. At first her efforts were in vain as Mehrdad ignored her, but her persistence gradually drew his attention and triggered an inner conflict within him. He was torn between the old, color-faded statue that represented his youth and his love, and Derakhshandeh, who had suffered and waited for him and conformed to his tastes. Who could he be overlooking?

Mehrdad felt that he could not simply overlook the statue that embodied his love. Did not she have a special life, a unique place in his heart? How much had she deceived him? How much had she entertained his thoughts? She had given him pleasure, and in his mind this statue was not just made of clay and artificial hair, but a living being that had a more real existence for him than a real person. Could he just throw it on the floor or give it to someone else? Leave it behind a shop window for strangers to marvel at its beauty, caress it with their eyes or even break it, those lips he had kissed so often, that neck he had caressed?

Never. He had to break up with her, kill her the way you would kill a living person, with your own hands.

Mehrdad bought a small revolver for this purpose. But every time he wanted to put his thought into action, he hesitated. One evening, when Mehrdad, drunk and unconscious, entered his room later than usual, he switched on the light. Then, as usual, he drew back the curtains, took a bottle of schnapps from the cupboard, turned up the gramophone, put on a record and drank two glasses of alcohol in a row. Then he sat down on the bench in front of the statue and looked at it.

Mehrdad looked at the statue’s face for a long time, but did not see it because it automatically formed in his mind. He simply did it out of habit because he had been doing it that way for years. After staring blankly for a while, he slowly stood up and approached the statue, stroked its hair and then placed his hand on its neck and chest. But suddenly, as if he had touched molten iron, he withdrew his hand and took a step back.

Could this be true? Could it be possible? This burning sensation he felt? No, there was no doubt about it. Had he been dreaming? Was it a nightmare? Was it because he was drunk? He wiped his eyes with his sleeve and sat down on the bench to collect his thoughts. Suddenly, at that moment, he saw the statue coming towards him with measured steps, one hand on his hip, laughing, walking towards him.

Mehrdad made a desperate move to flee, but then a thought occurred to him. Involuntarily, he reached into his trouser pocket, pulled out the revolver and fired three shots in quick succession at the statue. Suddenly he heard a groan and the statue fell to the ground.

Mehrdad bent down in panic and lifted the statue’s head. But it was not the statue. It was Derakhshandeh, drowning in her blood!


© Ali Salami 2021

About Sadeq Hedayat

Sadeq Hedayat was an Iranian author whose contributions to Persian fiction mark a clear departure from the traditional literary style. Hedayat is considered one of the most successful Iranian writers of the 20th century and was a pioneer of modernism, which continues to influence contemporary Persian literature to this day.

Hedayat was born into a prestigious family and received his early education in Tehran. He later studied dentistry and engineering in France and Belgium, where he came into contact with prominent European intellectuals. This contact prompted Hedayat to abandon his scientific ambitions in favor of a career in literature. Sadeq Hedayat is known for a large number of short stories that have been widely read by Iranian readers. Some of these stories are: Dash Akol, The Stray Dog (Sag-e Velgard), Three Drops of Blood (Se Qatr-e Khun), The Whirlpool (Gerdab), Seeking Redemption (Talab-e Amorzesh), The Doll Behind the Curtain (Arusak-e Posht-e Pardeh), The Claws (Changal).

All of his stories have been translated into English by the Iranian scholar Ali Salami.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *