Arslan by M.J. Engh

arslanThis is the most disturbing book I’ve read in a long time.  I almost decided not to review it.

But be brave.  Here goes.

Imagine America under the rule of a Genghis Kahn type figure.  Swiftly attacked and defeated, almost before anyone knew a war had begun.  Dominated, totally by a ruthless leader with a devoted army to back him up.  A general who swept in from the central plains of Asia, cutting down everyone who stood in his way without hesitation.

What happens after he is finished?

Arslan by M.J. Engh imagines this scenario with all its disturbing implications.

The novel opens with Arslan, the invading general, celebrating his victory over America in a small Indiana town.  As part of the celebration he rapes a young girl and then a young boy in a performance for his troops to enjoy.  He then takes the boy, Hunt Morgan, on as a sort of apprentice.  Rejected by his own father and family, Hunt has little choice but to follow the conqueror.  Arslan places Franklin Bond, former school principal, in charge of the town in his absence and leaves Hunt in his care.  These three characters form the core of the novel and the question of whom Hunt will ultimately follow becomes its major theme.

In this way, M.J. Engh makes her novel a meditation on the intertwined appeal of love and power.  Are we to read Arslan as a critique of fascism’s cult of personality?  Franklin describes Arslan’s methods as “first the rape, then the seduction.”  Does Ms. Engh mean for us to read her characters as real people or as metaphors for nations and peoples?  How many conquered peoples have ended up loving, or at least admiring their conquerors?   You can see this dynamic play out again and again throughout history.  No matter how horribly the conquering forces initially treat the conquered, there are those who admire them, who want to be like them, who hope to win their approval.  The bullied sometimes want to become the bully’s ally.

This is far from the only disturbing question Ms. Engh forces the reader to face in Arslan, both on the political and on the personal level.  As a political critique, I think the book works too well.  If you pin me down, I’m going to have to say it works on the personal level just as well.  As much as the reader hates to admit it, by the end of the novel Arslan becomes a sympathetic character.  His behavior even begin to make him seem a bit heroic as he helps defend the town from a new invading force.  That the reader feels this way serves to make him part of Ms. Engh’s overall argument about the nature of power and love in way that is not at all comfortable or comforting.

Arslan  is one disturbing book.