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Friday, November 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Book Review
"Alamut": Faith, rage and fanaticism — in the 11th century

By Barbara Lloyd McMichael
Special to The Seattle Times

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Scala House Press, the Seattle-based publisher that has taken on the mission of publishing "under-recognized" writers from around the world, has just released the first English-language translation of "Alamut" (Scala House Press, 390 pp., $22.95). It should be noted that Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol is hardly under-recognized elsewhere. Since its initial publication in 1938, "Alamut" has been translated into more than a dozen other languages and currently is a best seller in Europe.

The subject matter has something to do with it: This novel is loosely based on the life of 11th-century Ismailite Hasan ibn Sabbah, whom some credit with masterminding the idea of suicide missions and whose very name, by some accounts, has given rise to the word "assassin." Before tackling this novel, Bartol engaged in a decade of research. He offers interesting insights into the origins of the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam, and — writing as he was during the ascension of totalitarianism in Europe — he also conveys broader meditations on the nature of fanaticism.

Author appearance

Michael Biggins will read from his translation of Vladimir Bartol's "Alamut," 5 p.m. tomorrow, as part of the "State of Art: The New Slovene Avant Garde" festival at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle; free (206-267-5380).
For all of its provocative ideas and sometimes eerily prescient incidents, "Alamut" is also successful simply as an entertaining yarn.

Bartol devises a shifting collage of passions, adventure and sacrifice. The book's exotic settings are sumptuously described, and the characters are charismatic and complex — despite the fervent aims of some of them to subscribe to single-minded devotion.

"Alamut" was translated by Michael Biggins, who teaches in the University of Washington's Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

Don't miss his illuminating afterword — in some ways, the reader might have wished for the translator's insights before launching into the story, but there is wisdom in placing the commentary at book's end. This allows every reader to experience for himself or herself the shifting sands of an intellectual journey unencumbered by expectation, but later confirmed and expanded upon by Biggins.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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