Vladimir Bartol: Alamut

May 8, 2021

     Revisiting this astonishing novel, which was second entry in this blog nearly eleven years ago… and only got a short write-up back then. It’s a fictionalisation – though backed by some careful historical research – of the story of the Ismaili sect of the hashishin or assassins which sowed chaos and wrecked the Seljuk rule in Persia at the end of the eleventh century. It’s also a study of power, and the uses of power, and is perhaps significant for being written in Slovenia in the late 1930s, a time when the heavy hand of absolute power lay over much of Europe.

Girls are bought and trained to become houris – the virgins who welcome male martyrs to paradise. Boys are trained in blind obedience to become fedayin, martyrs for the cause. And then via the use of hashish and trickery the boys are taken to visit paradise for a night, and then told that this will be their reward when they die for the cause.

Among all this there is much astute political reflection by Hassan, the leader of Alamut, the impregnable rocky mountain fortress of the assassins. How much can one actually know? Ultimate knowledge is impossible, for our senses lie to us. So, if we can know nothing then everything is permissible: power is the only thing that matters and that works, and the European leaders of the 1930s seemed well-versed in this. And the masses are afraid of uncertainty, and can be deluded with stories of other-worldly paradise after they die, to make up for the suffering in this world…

So is Hassan, the commander of Alamut, an evil genius? Power-crazed? He certainly understands how to trick and deceive, to manipulate, to achieve and maintain power. Yet, even as he succeeds and the rule of the Seljuks begins to crumble under his carefully-crafted attacks, even as he becomes master of worldly power, things do not go smoothly. Problems emerge with lovers and relationships, with friendships, with family, and all of these must give way to the remorseless logic of power; Hassan seems inhuman at times, and yet a deeper reflection belies this: the power of friendships, loyalty, values and integrity still speak out.

In the end, this time round, I experienced a much more powerful novel. At the same time as the achievement of ultimate power there emerged the question of, yes, but what for? There is no God, it is clear, who is interested in us and who will save us from ourselves – and this I found interesting given the novel’s background and setting in the Islamic world. Behind the politics and the religion is a really good and gripping and well-written novel, with many interesting and carefully-drawn characters; it’s no roman à thèse.

Hassan’s icy harshness, cruelty and iron discipline are chilling, and yet in his spirit of enquiry into meaning, he adopts and frees the feday who would have assassinated him, and sends him out into the world to continue the quest. He is enigmatic to the end, not completely understood even by those closest to him, even as they admire his success. And somewhere, behind it all, from the depths and darkness of the 1930s, Bartol has a message about his own times and its leaders…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: