This weekend I finally finished reading The Girl from the Golden Horn by Kurban Said (or Essad Bey / Lev Nussimbaum as exposed in Tom Reiss’ The Orientalist). In short, if you’re interested in reading something by Kurban Said, read Ali and Nino and don’t waste your time with The Girl.
When I started reading The Girl, I began doubting Tom Reiss’ conclusion that Kurban Said was in fact just Lev Nussimbaum. I don’t mean that I doubted that Nussimbaum had written Ali and Nino, but I considered that the author of Ali and Nino and The Girl were actually two different people. By the end of the book, though, I was convinced Lev Nussimbaum had written both stories, even though the quality of the two differ enormously.
I was rather suspicious of Tom Reiss’ theory and Kurban Said when I started reading The Girl. First of all, Reiss only make a few passing references to the novel in The Orientalist. I would think that if your attempting to determine the identity behind Kurban Said, then you would analyze both of the two novels penned under that name. Yet Reiss almost completely ignores The Girl altogether (probably because of its lesser quality).
Next, one of the novel’s main characters is a physician, and the book (poorly) describes a series of medical diagnosises and procedures. Yet no where in The Orientalist does Reiss make reference to Nussimbaum having any medical knowledge or a desire to adquire it. Then, the novel moves to Yugoslavia and Bosnia, places that are also not referenced in Reiss’ Nussimbaum biography.
This got me to thinking that maybe The Girl was written by the Austrian Baroness, Elfriede Ehrenfels, who had registered the alias Kurban Said so that the novels could be published in Nazi Germany (Nussimbaum being a Jew was prohibited from doing so).
Then I started noticing a bunch of things that got me to reconsider my doubts. The book’s premise, the East-West divide, and the character traits of the “Asiatics” were so overstated, exaggerated, and oversimplified that it made me think that the story was written by someone who was trying to prove to the world that he was in fact a mysterious Orientalist. You almost get the feeling that the author is a very insecure person who is trying desperately to prove his vast knowledge of Middle Eastern culture, and yet, the author’s limits are often exposed through silly ethnic characterizations and often mistaken geography (describing Rabat as being visible from Casablanca).
This insecurity and desire to sell himself as an Eastern prince, although he was a Jewish convert to Islam, form the bases of The Orientalist. Furthermore, The Girl also touches on a series of other themes in Nussimbaum’s personal biography: the exiled prince and the fallen empire, the exiled prince living in New York, the exiled prince turned writer, the unfaithful wife, the husband left behind, Nussimbaum’s nostalgia for empires and his version of Asia.
So why is Ali and Nino a masterpiece and The Girl from the Golden Horn so forgettable? On Sunday, I started Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. In the same sense that The Girl often covers geographical areas and cultures that Nussimbaum was not familiar with (not all Middle Eastern cultures are the same), Gruen had absolutely no knowledge of her subject matter prior to writting her novel. While Water for Elephants is entertaining and engrossing (for the time being) because in part Gruen did her careful research, at least as it appears from The Orientalist, Nussimbaum was writing in haste.
Thus, I think that the major factor that makes Ali and Nino so special is that Nussimbaum was writting about something he truly understood, lived, believed and cared for, much more than just a second rate make-believe self. Read Ali and Nino, and let Kurban Said rest in peace right then and there, in his Azeri homeland.