‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted.’ – The Supreme Ismaili Motto
Alamut is an impenetrable fortress which houses a small Ismaili army ruled by the enigmatic Hasan ibn Sabbah. He is a charismatic yet elusive master. The subjects of Hasan ibn Sabbah, also called Sayyiduna, are in awe of their master on many different levels–some of them are scared of him, while others are inspired by his erudition. Regardless of what people think of him, he’s treated and respected as the prophet of Ismaili believers.
The fortress serves as a training camp for the fedayeen–elite assassins who serve the cause with blind passion and fear nothing. One of the new fedayeen is Avani ibn Tahir, who travelled from afar to join Sayyiduna’s army. His grandfather was a famous leader of the brotherhood and he would do anything to follow in his footsteps. Being so young, Avani doesn’t question, but follows the orders of the strict Ismaili faith and discipline.
The story is told from the point of two intertwining worlds which are so close together but separated by secrets. Alamut has parts which are not accessible to anyone but Hasan himself and his private bodyguards. Just over the other side of the fortress there are enormous gardens. These are Paradise Gardens inhabited by the most beautiful girls. The Paradise Gardens are almost an identical copy of the ones described by the Koran where all martyrs go once they fulfil their purpose as soldiers of the one true faith against infidels.
Halima is a fourteen-year-old girl who, after many misfortunes, ends up in the gardens of Alamut. Together with other girls, she is schooled in many subjects–none of them question anything as they are enchanted by living in an earthly paradise where they feel safe. Their friendships face trials when monstrous jealousy stands in the way. Their schooling is extensive–covering subjects to stimulate their minds as well as creative arts. One of their teachers, Apama, is a ‘retired’ temptress extraordinaire who teaches them how to seduce young assassins into believing they came to paradise to be endlessly pleased by divine houris. In a humorous way, Apama is an icon of seduction, and her knowledge of ‘love’ goes way beyond Kama Sutra.
Everything suddenly changes when Hasan learns of a great army of Sultan coming to reclaim Alamut. The young fedayeen are hastily initiated after affirmation of their unprecedented faith in the brotherhood and their cause. The book is a stunning demonstration of Hasan’s military strategic planning and his charisma which can change the most cowardly and timid boy into a fearless soldier.
As the story gradually unravels, so does the life of Hasan. His philosophical approach to self-proclamation of being a prophet with powers given to him by Allah is very complex. In an utterly compelling and profound way, Sayyiduna explains the meaning of the Supreme Ismaili motto: Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Hasan’s philosophy might be a superior mastermind strategy of gradual world domination, yet on many levels, it tells the story of a very lonely human being. A human being, who after an excruciating journey through a life of youthful inquisitiveness, betrayal and harsh reality of constant battles between religions and supremacies, comes to a point where he is soberly aware of the absurdity of everything around him. He seems very vulnerable in his state of total intoxication with pursuing an understanding of everything, including philosophy, religion, astronomy etc.
Coming to terms with the fickle capacity of human understanding of the world, he initiates an experiment which would prove how gullible and hopeless people are. How easy it is to mould them to fit any purpose. By sending young assassins to the Paradise Gardens, Hasan proves wrong those who thought he lost his mind. He learns of what cruelty he is capable of on the way to fulfilling his dreams and his youthful visions. The paradox of faith and human existence pushes him to extremes, and some of his actions, though affirming his unparalleled status, are tragic. Are any of the fedayeen going to open their eyes in time to learn the truth and fight for their lives? As far as such young warriors are concerned, first love is bound to alter their life experience. It will free some of them and incarcerate others forever.
Vladimir Bartol portrayed the world of Alamut in an intricate language of stunning facts and details, which he must have spent a long time researching. The characters are multidimensional–both in their mundane duties and when they are torn by their demons. Even though there are main characters that lead the story, all the characters in this book are fascinating. They are written in a way the reader can follow, get lost, and find their way to another plot from a different angle while wrestling with an understanding of the force behind the actions. The storytelling is enthralling and flawless. Alamut is a fairy tale set in 11th century Iran. With all the splendour of Asian kingdoms, Alamut reads like an imaginative tale of One Thousand and One Nights with Machiavellian ideologies, the thrill of battles and moral dilemmas.
Alamut is a book like no other. I bought this book as I heard it inspired the creation of the Assassin’s Creed game, which I love. I didn’t know what to expect, but it exceeded my expectations. Vladimir Bartol created a beautiful story of many dimensions, twists and turns. It is a fascinating and vivid world inhabited by characters haunted by arduous passion, power, melancholy and sorrowful love.
Another aspect of this book is that it’s not only a stunning fairy tale, but also an allegory by means of which Bartol questions fascism in 20th century Europe. Alamut might be read many times and understood in a different way each time. I love the language in which the book was written (I refer here also to the translation by Michael Biggins) and I fell in love with the characters because of their human erroneousness and dreams. Bartol challenged a lot of my opinions and left me thinking for hours.
I would recommend Alamut to anyone who loves a brilliantly written book and enjoys being challenged with every page.
Author: Vladimir Bartol (Translated by Michael Biggins)
Publisher: North Atlantic Books, USA
Published: 01/01/2008 (first published in 1938)
Review originally published on Fantasy-Faction website.