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The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

I can’t remember where I found Ali & Nino—probably while doing an A-to-Z of Hatchard’s paperback fiction section—but this jewel of a novel stuck with me long after I reluctantly turned the final page. It was one of those books you are sure no one else had ever read: it was by the Azerbaijani author Kurban Said, who, said the back, escaped to Vienna, where the novel was published was in 1938. Said seemed to have vanished sometime in the Second World War, and that pretty much all that was known about him.

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss
The Orientalist, Tom Reiss (Random House Trade, March 2006; Vintage, July 2006)

This was somewhat mysterious, but I didn’t think much more about it. After all, the English publishing world had overlooked other authors, often acclaimed in their native country and language, who disappeared in the mists of time, or in obscurity, only to discover them decades later. The Hungarian Sandor Marai, author of Embers, is one.

When Said’s second and I believe only other novel, The Girl From the Golden Horn, about a girl displaced into Europe from the collapsed Ottoman Empire, was released a few years ago, I rushed to get a copy: it was as marvelous as Ali & Nino.

There were of course some rumours that Kurban Said was a pseudonym—and it didn’t sound particularly Azeri to me and the novels seemed very European.

I never could have expected the truth: it turns out that Kurban Said was Jewish, born Lev Nussimbaum in Baku, son to a oil-baron father and a Bolshevik-sympathising mother who committed suicide. He and has father had to flee (twice), ending up in Berlin after sojourns in Istanbul and Paris.

Lev, for reasons of romanticism it would appear, converted to Islam and took the name Essad Bey. He wrote at least one well-received book a year, was rather well-known, married a socialite, and even lived in New York for a while. He returned to Vienna on the eve of the Second World War, and died hunted, penniless and ill in Positano in 1942 and is mentioned, albeit not by name, in the writings of Steinbeck.

And most amazing of all is that hardly anyone seems to have known that Lev Nussimbaum was Kurban Said until Tom Reiss dug it up; the absolutely fascinating story—both a biography and a tale of literary detective work—is detailed in The Orientalist. It’s not perhaps not quite the same as not knowing who Shakespeare was, but this was only 70 years ago, and within living memory.

And then, in a case of truth being stranger than fiction, is Lev himself. A precocious and delicate boy growing up in Baku, a city where the Western capitalism met the Levant, when the Ottoman, Persian and Russian Empires met at a time when Victorian-era gentility gave way both the excitement and brutality of revolution. His first escape took him to Bukhara and then back through what is now the Arab Middle East, dodging brigands. His second escape took up through the backlands of the Caucasus to Georgia.

It would not have been surprising if such a youth had brought out eccentricities if not outright neurosis. Tom Reiss is kind to his subject: Lev comes across as neurotic if not worse, living out multiple personalities and avoiding reality—which in fact never quite catches up with him: death beat the SS to Positano, but not be much.

At a time when Muslim and Jews glower at each other, and the Muslim world and West live in what is often mutual fear and loathing, and still soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet State that drove Lev Nussimbaum out of his cosmopolitan home, at a time when Azerbaijan is independent again, although a rather different place, The Orientalist and Lev Nussimbaun aka Essad Bay aka Kurban Said remind us of how what today appear to be rigid philosophies, relationships and borders were, not so long ago, considerably more fluid.

The Orientalist is a quite remarkable book—but it helps to have read Ali & Nino and Girl From the Golden Horn first: without them, Lev Nussimbaum is just an eccentric. We can understand Kurban Said from Tom Reiss’s biographical treatment, but we can’t know him: for that, we need the novels, for Said was just as fictional as Ali and Nino.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.