1001 Book Review: Alamut Vladimir Bartol
Alamut by Vladimir Bartol
First Published in: 1936
Reviewed by: Book Worm & Jen
Find/Buy it here:Alamut
Synopsis from Amazon: Alamut takes place in 11th Century Persia, in the fortress of Alamut, where self-proclaimed prophet Hasan ibn Sabbah is setting up his mad but brilliant plan to rule the region with a handful elite fighters who are to become his “living daggers.” By creating a virtual paradise at Alamut, filled with beautiful women, lush gardens, wine and hashish, Sabbah is able to convince his young fighters that they can reach paradise if they follow his commands. With parallels to Osama bin Laden, Alamut tells the story of how Sabbah was able to instill fear into the ruling class by creating a small army of devotees who were willing to kill, and be killed, in order to achieve paradise. Believing in the supreme Ismaili motto “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” Sabbah wanted to “experiment” with how far he could manipulate religious devotion for his own political gain through appealing to what he called the stupidity and gullibility of people and their passion for pleasure and selfish desires.
The novel focuses on Sabbah as he unveils his plan to his inner circle, and on two of his young followers — the beautiful slave girl Halima, who has come to Alamut to join Sabbah’s paradise on earth, and young ibn Tahir, Sabbah’s most gifted fighter. As both Halima and ibn Tahir become disillusioned with Sabbah’s vision, their lives take unexpected turns.
Alamut was originally written in 1938 as an allegory to Mussolini’s fascist state. In the 1960’s it became a cult favorite throughout Tito’s Yugoslavia, and in the 1990s, during the Balkan’s War, it was read as an allegory of the region’s strife and became a bestseller in Germany, France and Spain. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the book once again took on a new life, selling more than 20,000 copies in a new Slovenian edition, and being translated around the world in more than 19 languages. This edition, translated by Michael Biggins, in the first-ever English translation
Book Worm’s Review
The Alamut of the title is a remote fortress in 11th century Persia where a charismatic leader Hasan ibn Sabbah is training his own army of devoted Feyadeen young men who are willing to kill and die for him alone as they believe he has the keys to paradise with this army he plans to turn himself into the prophet al Mahdi and to gain control of the entire region in the name of his people the Ismaili.
The story is told through the eyes of 3 central characters: 1) The beautiful Halima, a slave girl who is purchased by Hasan to live in the gardens he has made in the image of paradise. She is purchased to play a role as a Houris the beautiful virgins who live in the gardens of paradise. 2) Ibn Tahir, a naïve young man who is sent by his father to Alamut to join Hasan and to avenge his grandfather’s murder; and 3) Hasan ibn Sabbah, the charismatic puppet master who is pulling all the strings and manipulating everyone else to achieve his own goals.
The setting is enchanting and the narrative reads almost like a fairy tale, however this is a book with a purpose. It shows how people can be manipulated by a charismatic leader and it teaches you to realize that you can’t believe everything you see.
Originally written in the 1930’s as an allegory for Fascism the book is still relevant today indeed with its remote setting and the way Hasan and his followers behave it could almost be said to predict Osama bin Laden. It is a historically informative book explaining in simple terms the differences between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims without taking sides and without demonizing anyone. While it is clear Hasan is not a good man, the people who follow him are individuals with their own reasons, motivations and understanding.
I really enjoyed 90% of this novel and then one of the characters did something I just couldn’t believe they would do and the last 10% of the book was a let down for me personally. That said, this was a good read and I would recommend it to others.
Alamut was written in the 1930s as an allegory for Fascism, but could easily have been written to describe modern day fanaticism. Alamut has the tone and structure reminiscent of fantasy and fairy tales, but it is anything but fantasy and is based loosely on historical events. It is a chilling tale of the dangers of fanaticism and how one man’s combination of charisma and power can corrupt a whole group of people.
I really enjoyed this book for a variety of reasons. I found the storytelling compelling and it drew me in immediately. Characters are initially come across as caricatures (e.g., the evil villain, the blind follower, the innocent maiden) but with greater examination they become more complex and well-developed. The style seems similar to that found in fantasy novels but the amount of historical detail and research pulls it out of the realm of fantasy into social commentary and historical fiction. Bartol creatures a terrifying picture of how cult-like fanaticism is created and maintained. He also presents readers with an interesting history of conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.
Last year I attended an excellent lecture on the psychological underpinnings of terrorism. The speaker was a psychologist who has spend time researching various terrorist groups including the Tamil Tigers. He spoke about the psychological reasons why these groups exist and are so successful in recruitment of followers. Bartol highlighted those same factors in his book giving us a glimpse into why people become radicalized.
Bartol took years to write this book and initially tried to dedicate the book to Benito Mussolini. He could have easily have dedicated it to any modern day tyrant. Unlike Book Worm, I wasn’t bothered by the ending. Well, as a good story, the “hero’s” actions bothered me, but as a realistic portrayal of how things might have unfolded, I found it believable.