The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Ali and Nino, the closest thing that modern Azerbaijan has to a national novel, was first published in German in 1937, sold in various translations, hit US bestseller lists in the early 1970s and bears the name Kurban Said as its author.

But the question of the author’s identity had never been resolved. All anyone agreed on was that Kurban Said was the pen name of a writer who had probably come from Baku, an oil city in the Caucasus, and that he was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulags, or the dilettante son of an oil millionaire, or a Viennese cafe-society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot.

The answer, which Reiss gets to quickly, is essentially, “All of the above.” And therein, of course, lies a tale. Or twelve.

Kurban Said was the pen name of a young man who also went by Essad Bey, though he had been born Lev Nussimbaum. He was born on a train, his father was an oil millionaire in the same boom that made the Nobels, his mother was an early Bolshevik, he was largely raised by a German (probably Baltic German) governess, and he did die at an early age in Italy after failing to get out of fascist Europe in time.

Not only did he write Ali and Nino, he was a bestselling figure in Weimar Germany, with a biography of Stalin, an analysis of oil in the Caucasus, a book on the Bolsheviks and much more crammed into a short span of astonishingly productive years. He escaped the Russian revolution by heading across the Caspian into the un-Bolshevized khanates, then down into a Persia that was stil nearly medieval, and wound up back in Baku for a time before heading into the mountains disguised as a Bolshevik himself, reuniting with his father under truly improbable circumstances, enjoying a brief exile in Georgia, converting to Islam for the first time in Constantinople (he wasn’t taken seriously enough), and eventually settling into the comparative stability of Weimar-era Berlin. This all well before his 20th birthday.

Reiss has a terrific story to tell, and he does not fail his subject matter. The mystery of Kurban Said not only opens up Lev Nussimbaum’s unlikely life — he also married and divorced an American heiress — it also illustrates how thoroughly jumbled Europe was in the recent past, and how much of that past lives on into the present.


Invited to dinner one night by our neighbor, a raven-haired, blue-eyed Turkish English New Yorker name April, my wife and I were introduced to her cousin by marriage — an older man impeccably but modestly dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit of uncertain vintage. Thus, I found myself shaking hands with Mr Ertugrul Osman, the rightful heir to the Ottoman Empire. He was the eldest male member of the ancient house that had ruled the Muslim world for six centuries, and had things gone differently, he would now be the sultan of Turkey.
Mr Osman had the unmistakable sleepy-lidded eyes and pointed eyebrows that I knew from the portraits of Suleyman the Magnificent and the other sultans, though he was thinner and wore a black knit tie rather than a silk turban. … The current Mr Osman’s gestures seemed youthful for an octogenarian; I felt I was speaking with Suleyman the Magnificent as an old-fashioned Harvard man.

Or thus:

In 1916, Georgian monarchists had been allowed to establish a kind of government in exile in Berlin, the German-Georgian Society, under the guidance of the aging Prince Matchabelli. Then, for a time, the Germans backed the independent Menshevik Republic of Georgia against the Bolsheviks.

To which a footnote adds:

Prince Matchabelli himself soon gave up the struggle for the Georgian monarchy and moved to New York, where he amassed a fortune by putting his name and family crest on a line of perfumes.

Who knew?

And not just Europe.

By the spring of 1934, when [an American admirer of Hitler] gave a speech at Madison Square Garden to more than twenty thousand “friends of the New Germany,” the hall was hung with American flag shields, swastikas, and pictures of Washington and Hitler.

Said’s life and times take the reader back to any number of lost worlds, from cosmopolitan Baku to interwar Berlin to the shadowy existence of his last years, when, as a Jew (at least in the view of the authorities), he had to use fronts to earn anything from his books, and where he kept one step ahead of persecution until a rare disease put an end to his odyssey. Reiss tells the tales of Nussimbaum’s life with care, with brio, and with understanding of the cross-currents.

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