three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
By: 
Tom Reiss
user_rating: 
0

Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

A-OrientalistUnder the Muslim pen names Essad Bey and Kurban Said, Lev Nussimbaum wrote bestselling German language books about romance and revolution in Russia and the Middle East. In reality, Nussimbaum was born to a wealthy Jewish oil family in Azerbaijan in 1905; growing up in a Caspian port allowed him to move fluidly across cultures. Escape from the Russian Revolution took him to the Middle East and then to Europe. He created his Muslim prince persona and gained fame for his writings in Nazi Germany. That fame may have preserved his life once his true ethnicity was revealed and he became an increasingly evasive star in his own drama. In his quest to unravel the mythical life of the "Orientalist," Reiss followed Nussimbaum’s trails from Azerbaijan and Austria, Istanbul and Italy, and from the Russian Revolution through the rise of Hollywood.
Random House. 464 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1400062659

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"… a brainy, nimble, remarkable book …. But for all the amazing rises and falls of Nussimbaum/Bey/Said’s expressly 20th Century life … what boosts this account above a mere true-mystery yarn is Reiss’s dead-on cultural analysis, his record of the failed ideas that almost destroyed the world." Darin Strauss

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"It may be part detective yarn, part author biography, part travel saga, but The Orientalist is completely fascinating." Jerome Weeks

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"It will inevitably be said that The Orientalist reads like a novel, which is always a backhanded compliment. … Yet the real achievement of this book—and it is a significant one—is that in solving the prosaic puzzle, Reiss has preserved the romantic allure." Gideon Lewis-Kraus

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"His inquiries lead him to a strange gallery of characters, most in their 80’s or even older, and all of them extremely odd, like the Austrian baroness, isolated in a remote castle, who spends her nights writing the French text for an Israeli-German rock musical. … [W]hat a tale it is—mesmerizing, poignant and almost incredible." William Grimes

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If you think that such a life-journey sounds hair-raisingly precarious, you don’t know the half of it. … Ultimately, perhaps, there is too much background, especially of the Weimar era, which skews the book westward, and not nearly enough of Nussimbaum’s own writings, which centered chiefly on matters eastern." Melik Kaylan

San Diego Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Despite its subtitle, The Orientalist tries—and largely succeeds—to accomplish something larger than unraveling the tangled threads of a ‘strange and dangerous life.’ … Reiss can be a graceful and powerful writer, but he travels at breakneck speed." Peter Rowe

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Numerous digressions are more detailed than relevant, on everything from the origins of the Shiite-Sunni scission to the decay of old Turkey. … Whether this astounding and bitter story has any moral I am not sure, but it defies the old phrase ‘stranger than fiction.’" Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Critical Summary

Reiss persistently peeled away layers of fact and fiction to recount a remarkable life. He was also lucky: his subject’s elusiveness made ferreting out truth difficult, but Reiss discovered six of Nussimbaum’s notebooks in the possession of his last editor. Critics agree that The Orientalist fascinates from both a biographical and cultural perspective—it’s rich in exotic settings and characters, from an Austrian baroness to a former Hollywood starlet. Despite its charm, the book has some faults. Reiss seems to have included every piece of information he encountered, from historical anecdotes to ornate set pieces. Some factual errors, the book’s brisk pace, and the lack of maps may confuse readers. Still, The Orientalist is excellent look into the reinvention of self during one of history’s most turbulent times.

Nussimbaum’s Biggest Book

Ali and Nino A Love Story | Kurban Said (1937): In Said’s masterpiece, set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and rise of the Soviet Union, an Azerbaijani Muslim boy falls in love with a Georgian Christian girl.