33. ‘Alamut’ by Vladimir Bartol

alamutOne thing that’s pretty much guaranteed to get me to read a book is if it’s set in Persia. For me, even the name echoes with exoticism and poetry – I picture beautiful gardens, amazing fabrics and spices, and Omar Khayyam relaxing under a bough with a book, a glass of wine and thou.

Of course, that’s a crazily idealised version of the place, which had more than its fair share of corruption and warring factions. Bartol’s masterpiece ‘Alamut’ deals with both sides of ancient Iran, from the bloodthirsty battles to the sumptuous wealth.

The book tells the story of Hassan-i Sabbah, the leader of the Ismailis, a dissenting religious sect in Persia. Sabbah also owns the huge castle of Alamut, which he uses as the base of his plans to take over the country. He trains the fedayin, his personal army, to withstand extreme pain and to be willing to give up their lives for their leader without question.

The fedayin’s utter devotion is achieved through an elaborate plan constructed by Sabbah. In Alamut’s secret gardens he creates an earthly paradise and populates it with beautiful women. He drugs select members of his fedayin with hashish, takes them to the gardens whilst they sleep, and makes them believe they have been allowed a glimpse of Paradise. When the fedayin wake up ‘back on earth’, they are not only willing to die but eager to, to get back to Paradise and spend eternity with the beautiful houris. Thanks to the potent combination of hashish and lies, they become hashshashin … assassins.

One half of the book follows the story of the fedayin – their training, battles and struggles with the truth – and the second half focuses on the lives of the fake houris. Not only is the story wonderfully captivating and the characters are interesting and complex, but the philosophy that Bartol explores is fascinating. Sabbah sees himself as having superior knowledge to the masses. The idea of there being a supreme being with a grand plan is abhorrent to him, but he believes that the masses need these lies in order to live. For Sabbah, lying is always justified when it keeps the masses happy and lets him get on with playing his grand games. He is an incredible character who inspires both repulsion and sympathy in the reader, and he is an extremist in every sense of the word.

This is a brilliant, thought-provoking book and I honestly cannot fault it. One of the best I’ve read this year.

“But the sun continued to shine down all the same on me, on Alamut, and on the two dead bodies lying before me. And this is what I thought: either there is no power above us, or else it’s supremely indifferent to everything that happens down here.”

If you liked my review, why not read the book and let me know what you think?

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