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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Vladimir Bartol

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Alamut

Title: Alamut
Author: Vladimir Bartol
Genre: Novel
Written: 1938 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 391 pages
Original in: Slovenian
Availability: Alamut - US
Alamut - UK
Alamut - Canada
Alamut - France
Alamut - Deutschland
  • Slovenian title: Alamut
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Michael Biggins

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit long-winded, but has its moments

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Seattle Times . 19/11/2004 Barbara Lloyd McMichael
Le Temps . 17/11/2001 André Clavel

  From the Reviews:
  • "For all of its provocative ideas and sometimes eerily prescient incidents, Alamut is also successful simply as an entertaining yarn." - Barbara Lloyd McMichael, Seattle Times

  • "Un conte oriental, Alamut ? Un divertissement ? Un songe ? Non, bien sûr, mais un impitoyable plaidoyer contre le fanatisme, où Vladimir Bartol démasque les promesses frauduleuses des dictateurs, d'hier comme d'aujourd'hui. Son roman date des années 30, mais il semble avoir été écrit il y a quelques mois. On en tremble." - André Clavel, Le Temps

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Alamut is set at the end of the 11th century, and tells the story of the legendary Hasan ibn Sabbah's plan to conquer, utilising the first 'Assassins'. Ensconced in the practically impregnable Alamut fortress, the Ismaili leader does not have great armies at his disposal -- but he does have a plan.
       The novel begins by focussing on two young individuals who are among the many cogs in Hasan's plan. Halima is a young girl who had been sold off in distant Bukhara and has now been transported to Alamut, not knowing what awaits her. The buyer promised her previous master that she: "would live like a princess", and she does find herself in a sort of paradise. There are many other girls and women there -- and a few eunuchs to take care of their needs, and teach them -- and while there are a variety of lessons that fill much of the day, life there is almost idyllic. Even leopards and gazelles frolic together .... . But the girls aren't sure what they're being groomed for.
       At about the same time as Halim arrives at Alamut a young man named Avani ibn Tahir also reaches it. He is an Ismaili whose grandfather was beheaded -- "the first martyr for our cause in Iran" -- and whose father has sent him to serve the Ismaili cause and avenge his grandfather's death. He is taken in and begins a rigorous training with a number of other young men to become fedayeen ("A feday is an Ismaili who's ready to sacrifice himself without hesitation at the order of the supreme commander").
       Hasan remains far removed from most of the goings-on, helping add to the air of mystery about him. But he has grand ambitions:

He was the master of thirty armed fortresses. He was the commander of thousands of believers. He lacked only one tool to assume absolute power. To become feared by all potentates and foreign despots far and wide. That tool was the plan just now on the verge of being launched. A plan built on thorough knowledge of nature and human weakness. An insane and wild plan. A plan calculated in every respect.
       He's embraced the idea that: "The truth is unknowable. Therefore we believe in nothing and have no limits on what we can do." But that doesn't stop him from using the teachings and the lore of Islam to get his way. His followers believe: "He's the prophet", first after Allah himself -- and so if he says it's okay for the girls to have some wine then they can enjoy some wine.
       Hasan knows there is only one way he can achieve all he wants to:
Until now I've trusted to my statesmanship. But now I'm going to see what faith can accomplish.
       The idea is that he will convince his fedayeen to overcome any fear of death, and he proposes doing this by giving them a peek of what awaits them when they die a martyr's death for the cause -- a peek at paradise itself. He drugs a select few with some hashish, and when they wake up they are in paradise itself -- paradise being some of the gardens of Alamut, populated by the fair maidens who have been instructed to do whatever is required of them, and to treat their guests as though they really were in heaven. It's a spectacular and convincing show Hasan and his girls (including Halima) pull off, and when the three who travelled to paradise wake up on earth again they're convinced that all the stories of the rewards of paradise are true. It turns them into even more fearless warriors -- and leaves the enemy quivering before them.
       Hasan needs gullible young men to mould into warriors, and so, for example, none of the young recruits can have known a woman -- spiritual innocence is lost with physical innocence, Hasan believes, and by controlling even this part of their lives (giving them a taste of that only in paradise) they conform completely to his will.
       Hasan is as cynical about his warrior-drones as he is about the masses:
     You see, the difference between those of us who have seen through things and the vast masses stumbling through the dark is this: we've limited ourselves, while they refuse to limit themselves. They want us to get rid of the blank space of the unknown for them. They can't tolerate any uncertainty. But since we don't have any truth, we have to comfort them with fairy tales and fabrications.
       Hasan's plan seems to work, both convincing the lads and leading to the desired results (of intimidating his enemies), but it's hard to pull off as comprehensively as he needs it to. Cracks appear, and things don't go entirely as planned, and sacrifices must be made.
       Alamut is a timeless sort of political allegory, as in 1100, and in 1938 when Bartol published it -- and now -- and almost every time between, the abuse of faith (in all its variations, religious and otherwise) and the ability to twist minds to obtain blind (and literally thought-less) obedience has been a popular technique. With its colourful setting and appealing set-up -- in particular presenting the artificial paradise from all sides (architect Hasan's, as well as that of the girl play-actors, and the hoodwinked youths) -- and with a good deal of adventure, romance, and political intrigue, Bartol offers an enjoyable, broad historical adventure-tale, too.
       Alamut has its longueurs, but the high-points are worth the waits. The simple trickery -- and, especially, the success of the desired effects -- may seem exaggerated, but for the most part Bartol is a good judge (or rather depicter) of human character, and he presents an engaging cast of characters here.
       A solid adventure story, and a once-again timely tale.

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Alamut: Reviews: Vladimir Bartol: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol lived 1903 to 1967.

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© 2008-2010 the complete review

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