Red Wheelbarrow Book Reviews
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The Orientalist by Tom Reiss
Chatto & Windus UK
If you have often wished you knew where Baku is situated, if the Caspian and the Black Sea are only vaguely on your map, if Azerbaijan sounds romantic and you wonder why Montenegro wants to get its independence from Serbia, why the Turks refuse to admit to their genocide of the Armenians, if those are questions that are of interest to you, read The Orientalist, the story of Lev Nussimbaum, alias Essad Bey and Kurban Said. The book takes you on a most exotic journey from Baku, birthplace of Lev in 1905 across Azerbaijan to Ottoman Turkey, via the Caucasus to Austria, Berlin, Paris and finally to the site of his death in Positano, Italy in 1942.
Lev Nussimbaum was the son of Abraham Nussimbaum, a multi-millionaire oil magnate in Baku, a city which at the time was the supplier of half the world's oil. These are the last years of the czars and the first tremblings of the revolution; the beginning of the twentieth century where one violent eruption followed another and the hero of the book more or less successfully flees from them all. Father and son left Baku on a camel to escape the revolutionary terrorists, a journey that took them via Turkmenistan, Persia, Georgia eventually via a short stop in Paris to the Berlin of the Weimar Republic known at the time as "Chicago on the Spree" for its degenerate qualities.
It was in Berlin in the twenties and early thirties that Lev became a famous author of endless articles, biographies, novels with a vast reputation. In a time when Jews tried to hide from publicity and escape at all cost the fate awaiting them, he made himself known by eccentric dress, eccentric behavior, a conversion to Islam much talked about, a new identity, a most exotic childhood: all grist for his mill. He knew all the great and the café society of his time: Pasternak, Nabokov, he knew Mussolini's inner circle, George Sylvester Vierecka famous poet (and advocate of Hitler), Ezra Pound - one can go on and on. He died poor and young of Raynaud's syndrome, a sort of gangrene in his leg.
The story told by Tom Reiss is fascinating if you want to understand more about life lived as a refugee from communist terror and from Nazi persecution. This is the story of a sensitive, peculiar iconoclast: a man of intelligence and talent who struggled from early childhood until his painful death, to live a life. His life as he saw it.
The book is written like a detective story: the author pursues clues to help him and us understand which of the three identities is which and why. I have not begun to explain the title: the Orientalist, a means of self discovery, a description which goes counter to Edward Saïd's notion of the term. But this is already too long. Let me end by saying I found it all most engaging and I loved the history lesson one absorbs painlessly and simultaneously.