Written in 1938, Bartol dedicated this book to Benito Mussolini, and with good reason: Alamut tells the story of two young Persians caught up in the Ismaili sect of Shi’ite Islamists during the early 12th Century. Halima, a girl ‘purchased’ to become a Houri for the Ismaili leader Hassan-i Sabbah, finds herself immersed in the sect’s schemes of seduction and drug-induced mysticism to brainwash naïve young men into joining the extremist faction and their cause against the Seljuk Empire in Persia. The other young Persian, Tahir, is drawn towards the Ismaili fortress of Alamut, where he finds his life changing under the tutelage of the Ismailis and Hassan-I Sabbah’s cult of personality.
The book was originally written in Slovene so the translated copy obviously does not reflect the original. That said, his prose is simple, and I think it suffers for it. Writing punctually in a novel created to ‘make a point’ can be effective, as we have seen with Orwell’s dystopian masterpieces. However, Bartol attempts to weave political ideology through the scope of an orientalist’s rendition of medieval Persia, which creates what can only be described as an uncanny tone: an exotic setting filtered through banal imagery, plot-driven characters meant only to justify Sabbah’s utopian ideals, and broken sense of spirituality one would not normally find in the medieval Islamic world.
Nonetheless, Alamut is still an interesting read, if not for its dystopian satire then more for its distinctly Slovene portrayal of a culture far removed from its own.