The Mayor of Aln by James Rourke. Book review

mayorTHE MAYOR OF ALN by James Rourke, Parthian Books, £5.99 Paperback

Reviewed by I O’Reilly

Set in the semi-fictional lands of the Province (an analogy to the late medieval period/early Renaissance of Europe), The Mayor of Aln is really a meditation on celebrity, utopia, superstition and cruelty. Rourke uses the small town of Aln as the backdrop to his study of what happens when small-minded people come under the sway of a charismatic leader. Unlike in other studies of the same concept, this one leaves you guessing about whether or not the people of Aln were better off under the sway of the enigmatic ‘Konrad’.

The tale begins as the central figure; Konrad the Schoolteacher, arrives in Aln to apply for the post of Schoolmaster and there proceeds to quietly enact an intellectual revolution amongst the children of the town. Although some of Aln’s town council are at first suspicious of Konrad, his apparent charisma and intellect wins over almost every detractor in the town, and he soon has the townsfolk eating out of his hand. He teaches a new form of philosophy to the students of Aln’s school, whilst himself gaining in status and popularity to eventually become the Mayor of the town.

When Konrad starts questioning the edicts of the Electi (the mysterious ‘prophet-kings’ of the Province), there arises the inevitable cry of heresy, treachery and treason. The story makes the reader wonder whether Konrad’s dictatorial system, where property is theft and money a sin, is really worse than the corrupt bureaucracies of the Province, or indeed whether his ‘experiment’ at Aln should be allowed to continue.

There are moments of real unease in the story that Rourke introduces well: the difference in Konrad’s disposition at the beginning and at the end of the book, and the eventual treatment of the ‘King of Aln’ at the hands of the Electi’s agents. These are the items that keep us from liking Konrad and his experiment in its entirety.

On the whole; the Mayor of Aln is an unsettling story that could sit just as easily next to historical stories such as Suskind’s ‘Perfume’ or Harris’ ‘Chocolat’ – but perhaps not as satisfying to read. The setting of the Province and the make-up of the society (the Electi and the quasi-Christian beliefs) are nicely put together and have the feeling of history and reality about them. If you’re looking for a book that isn’t easy reading, and will leave you wondering about celebrity and belief, than you could do far worse than pick up a copy of this little book.