I just finished reading Tom Reiss’ celebrated biography of Lev Nussimbaum, The Orientalist. The biography’s subtitle is “Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Mysterious Life”, yet the book doesn’t quite do that, nor does it serve as the definitive argument proving that Nussimbaum was in fact Kurban Said (the author of Ali and Nino). Neverthless, I did enjoy the story and I would recommend it, with the caveats mentioned below.
I came across Lev Nussimbaum, The Orientalist, and the unknown identity of Kurban Said in an atypical way. After having read Samarkand, I looked up similar novels, found a description of the novel, Ali and Nino, and thought it sounded interesting. I read it and enjoyed, and then while writing a post on the novel, I decided to put a link to its author Kurban Said. That lead me to the controversy behind Kurban Said’s real identity and to Reiss’ biography of Nussimbaum.
After having read the cover, jacket, and subtitle to The Orientalist, I suppose I was expecting something very different than what I got. I was expecting all of the facts, arguments, and counter-arguments that proved that Nussimbaum was definitely and without a doubt Kurban Said, author of both Ali and Nino and The Girl from the Golden Horn. I was expecting a comparative analysis of these two Kurban Said novels with Nussimbaum’s other writings (under the pseudonym Essad Bey) and his lifestory.
While the biography does, at the beginning, make reference to a few passages in Ali and Nino, there are only two or three references at all to The Girl from the Golden Horn. Why is there almost no discussion of Nussimbaum actually sitting down and writing either novel? For example, now that I am reading The Girl from the Golden Horn, I would have liked to see why Nussimbaum chose to make one of the protagonists a physician and where he got his “medical” information from. Did he have that knowledge?
In other words, the biography is really NOT about proving that Nussimbaum is Kurban Said. I think it does point to his identity and it is more than believable, but the academic arguments and proofs are simply not in the book.
Then there’s the subtitle of solving the identity of the mysterious man and dangerous life. But the story doesn’t make Nussimbaum appear like someone who is making decision for their dangerous quality. He seems simply to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time and, frankly, to be totally ignorant of the dangers around him.
Finally, the book is less about Nussimbaum’s biography than it is a history of the turmoil and politics in each city that Nussimbaum finds himself. It is a story about what a terrible and racist place Europe was for the first half of the 20th century. And this is what makes the story so interesting and compelling, and where I learned the most. I knew plenty about World War II and the Nazis, but very little about the Russian Revolution and how it had completely obliterated so many cultures and peoples on its path to rewriting human history, a path that curiously took it to control those areas with massive quantities of oil.
For example, I didn’t know about the 1.4 million White Russian emigrants around Europe and the world, about the refugees in Paris and Berlin, about the shere destruction of the Bolsheviks. You can almost feel the extreme left and extreme right’s logic in history. Russia and most of Europe still did not have their political revolutions. Unfortuantely, they were now chosing the French style (as opposed to the less brutal and more stable American Revolution) and were literally obliterating anything or anyone that was a reminder of the former power systems. In reaction, ultra-right wing regimes grew up in the Western Europe to buffer the Bolshevik destruction. What is so hard to understand today is how Europe was plagued with such an extreme thirst for dominance and a cultural superiority comlex (something it still has not lost).
And if you look today at the Middle East, you can see how much of the tension with the “West” was the result, not of U.S. foreign policy, but of Russian, Germany, English, and French intrigue, colonization, and acquisition. Like the revolutionaries’ vision of creating a new communist world through the destruction of the cultures in its path, you almost wonder if the U.S.’s call for democracy is nothing more than a modern oil-thirsty 21st Century American Bolshevism.
In any event and back to the book, The Orientalist is definitely not a perfect biography. Lev seems less strange, less mysterious, and more banal than the book’s subtitle would imply. He actually seems like nothing more than an insecure teenager looking for attention. As a matter of fact, I now read The Girl from the Golden Horn in a very different light. From what I have learned of Lev from The Orientalist, I can now see the author’s limited knowledge of the Middle East through his forced attempts to prove to the reader that he has a stronger grasp on the region than he actually does. The novel even over-generalizes and, through its inaccurate stereotypes, mischaracterizes the Middle East.
Having said all of this, I do definitely recommend The Orientalist, but with the following instructions. First read Ali and Nino. Samarkand would also be a great accompanying novel. If you really enjoy Ali and Nino, only then will you be able to truly appreciate The Orientalist, especially the first half where Lev’s exodus from Baku is similar to Ali’s. You feel like you’re extending the novel. Depending on what your other interests are, though, the rest of the biography is a disorganized history of Russian and Jewish refugees in the political unstable and brutal Europe.
A nice follow up would be a “making of” The Orientalist travel book, whereby Reiss tells all of his personal stories in researching the life of Nussimbuam.