the Slovenian
glasilo magazine
radio glas
info centre
who we are

Vladimir Bartol: Far Ahead of His Time
by Slovenia News Staff

Excerpted from Rodna Gruda, English Section March 2003

Vladimir Bartol, the author of one the most widely translated Slovenian novels, Alamut, would celebrate his 100th birthday on February 24. When it was first published in 1938, Alamut was received with considerable scepticism by critics. Now, decades later, critics and readers alike talk about it with nothing but superlatives.

Bartol was born in 1903 in a small village near Trieste into the family of a post office worker, Gregor Bartol. His mother Marica was a teacher, writer and the editor of the first Slovenian women's magazine Slovenka. While his mother later largely renounced her feminist views in practice, the young Vladimir was adamant to pursue his dreams and become a writer. Not just any writer, but a world famous man of letters. The undeterred self-confidence that he showed as a youngster later helped him weather the storm of criticism that he was exposed to due to his life philosophy and writing. The family decided to move to Ljubljana when Vladimir was in secondary school. After finishing school in 1921, he went on to study biology and philosophy, and graduated with a thesis entitled "On Factors that Enable Living Organisms to React Reasonably to External Impulses".

The Formative Years

While at university, Bartol made friends with the young philosopher and alpine climber Klement Jug. Jug was a fervent believer in Nietzsche's "will to power" and, unlike many other philosophers, he actually practiced what he preached. He undeniably affirmed his philosophy of an uncompromising rise of willpower when he died climbing the excruciating northern face of Mount Triglav, Slovenia's highest mountain, in 1924. Jug left an indelible impression on Bartol, the ultimate result being that his opponents too often criticised him as a philosopher and ideologist, and forgot about his literary work.

In the concept of "will to power", Bartol found what he perceived as being the elementary characteristic that a small and threatened national group like Slovenians need in their struggle to persevere. He was sharply critical as he discovered in Slovenians the characteristics of a weakened nation, brought up in humility and fear of living. It was a nation defined by the cult of goodness - a goodness unfortunately, of the feeble.

In a short story entitled "At the Crossroads" (1935), where one of the characters can easily be recognised as modelled on Klement Jug, Bartol says: "Bunglers achieve nothing. Our nation has always been a nation of bunglers and a friend of compromise". Although this was a veiled call for a rise to arms in a national liberation struggle, the established intellectual elite started treating Bartol with considerable criticism; even more so after he published Alamut three years later. Bartol initially wanted to dedicate Alamut to an "unknown dictator", but the editors nipped his intention in the bud.


Set in Persia in the eleventh century, Alamut is the story of Hassan Ibn Sabah, an old man who becomes the head of the Ashashini sect. Ensconced within his mountain citadel of Alamut, the "Caligula of the East" wages a horrifying holy war against the Turks who threaten to impose Sunnitism on the Persian Muslims. At first, Hassan Ibn Sabah seems week and undermanned compared to the superior enemy. Yet he achieves a breakthrough with a small but utterly committed group of fedayee. They are fanatic desperados fearless of death. He gets them high on hashish, gives them a taste of what they believe to be heaven, and sends them to suicide missions they are eager to fulfil.

The character of Hassan Ibn Sabah was strongly reminiscent of the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, who were in power when the novel was published. It could thus be interpreted as a warning, but Slovenian critics were utterly perplexed by the book's "nothing is real, everything is allowed" doctrine, and Hassan Ibn Sabah's "alienation of the people" method. "The lower the conscience of the group, the greater its zeal", Hassan would say. People who want to fight by his side must be in love with death.

All of Bartol's theses, as laid out in Alarnut, seemed far out of the temporal and mental context of the time, at least for the critics. This can hardly be said of 1988 and 1989 though, when the novel was translated into French and Spanish. Alamut was an immediate hit in France, and the 30,000 copies printed were sold out in a matter of months. It was even more successful in Spain: the first 10,000 copies sold out even before the book was officially published. Alamut has since been translated into 15 languages, including Arabic. It also achieved its deserved recognition in Slovenia, as it became assigned reading in secondary school.

In the Spotlight after 9/11

There are at least two reasons why the novel is now immensely popular in Slovenia and abroad: the rise of Islamic terrorism, which took on a previously unseen form on September 11, 2001, and (what is often forgotten) the simple fact that the novel is a page-turner. The editor of the French edition, Jean Pierre Sicre, explained his decision to publish Alamut with the words, "There is a single principle: pleasure! There are no others. A pure pleasure of reading". As is true of all great novels, Alamut is multi-layered. It can be read as a historical, philosophical, political or trivial text, or ultimately, as a metaphor that seems less and less abstract after the political turmoil of the recent years.

After the initial negative attitude towards Bartol, Slovenian readers have become increasingly approving of his work. Hopefully this is not because Alamut has been confirmed as a masterpiece by others, who are bigger than us. This would only indicate that not much has changed since Bartol complained about the humility and low self esteem of Slovenians.

More than Just Alamut

After publishing the fourth reprint of Alamut in 2002 (the book has been on the best-selling list for months) the publishing house Zalozba sanje also reprinted a collection of Bartol's short stories, entitled Al Araf, in December. The title, which in Arabic means the wall between heaven and hell (the wall of cognition), is a bit misleading as the 27 short stories are a psychological and philosophical view of day-to-day problems of urban life. The short stories bear distinct fingerprints of psychoanalysis, which was unusual of Slovenian literary works at the time. The only other contemporary of Bartol to apply psychoanalysis in his writings was Slavko Grum; he too only achieved critical acclaim after his death. Zalozba sanje has already announced it will shortly publish a selection of Bartol's lampoons.

Although disappointed at the less than rave reviews of his work, Bartol never lost his faith in his literary genius. He believed strongly in Alamut, and recalled on an occasion: "I had had the feeling as if I was also writing for a readership that would live fifty years from now". When he wrote the final word of his masterpiece, he became paranoid about the possibility of someone stealing his manuscript or losing it to a blaze of fire. "Let them kill me; I will be immortal in Alamut", he wrote. Vladimir Bartol died a non-violent death in 1967. It seems that he has become immortal, and that his writings are walking Al Araf, the wall of cognition.