Despite author's efforts, 'Orientalist' keeps his mask on

February 20, 2005|By Jean McGarry | Jean McGarry,Special to the Sun

The Orientalist: Solving The Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

By Tom Reiss. Random House. 409 pages. $25.95.

The Orientalist tells the strange and sometimes incredible tale of Lev Nussimbaum, a Russian-Jewish writer, born into luxury in oil-rich and cosmopolitan Baku, but driven from home as a child by the early Bolshevik raids. The family went first by camel caravan eastward to Turkistan, then westward to Constantinople and north to Europe.

Wherever they lived, hell was just breaking loose. In Constantinople, the family encountered racial-cleansing Turks, and later in Paris and Berlin (where Lev settled as part of the large Russian emigre community) Hitler's fascism was on the rise. Keeping the family alive (and often in style) was Lev's father, Abraham, trading in Paris cafes on the futures of family oil fields, "liberated" by the Reds.

Because he was fated to be a writer -- of history and of fiction -- Nussimbaum's tumultuous history proved to be nothing but gold. But the author added another twist to the stories he was to write: While in Paris, he converted to Islam and laid claim to being the direct descendant of Russian aristocrats and Muslim royalty. (He also began to dress in turban, fez and flowing robes.) Resurfacing under the name Essad Bey, he wrote biographies of Lenin, Mohammed, Stalin and Nicholas II. He also composed an eyewitness history of the times, Blood and Oil in the Orient, and, ultimately, his claim to fame, a bittersweet interracial romance titled Ali and Nino. It is this last novel, still in print, that led the "orientalist's" biographer, Tom Reiss, to pursue his trail across Europe and Central Asia, interviewing elderly survivors of the catastrophes of the early century, and digging into archives.

So who was this man of masks? Reiss' book offers a wealth of information on the subject (who, incidentally, changed his name a third time, to Kurban Said). Some of this information is persuasive, some less so. One of the problems is Nussimbaum / Bey / Said wrote many versions of his own story, including a multi-volume deathbed account. And the orientalist was a tale-teller of power -- and not one who let facts stand in his way.

But, the times with their shifting national borders, collapsing empires, revolution and global wars -- all laced with the spirit of fanaticism -- make for a good read. The reader willingly climbs on the magic carpet behind Reiss and goes for the ride.

Some quibbles: Sometimes the desire to elucidate the life of this exotic creature is thwarted by Reiss' equally strong desire to elucidate all aspects of the times. While accounts of events in Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkistan, Iran, Turkey, France, Germany and Italy are lucid from part to part, Reiss has no obvious thesis, no sorting schema, no limits on his grasp. The effect is a bit like spending 30 hours reading daily newspaper accounts. The tableau is up-close and vivid, but the historian's art of teasing out patterns and defining forces is almost entirely absent.

Reiss is a journalist, not a historian, and I would not normally be so exacting, if I weren't disappointed at the failure to probe the character of Lev Nussimbaum. Perhaps, the orientalist has all too deftly interred himself in his own writings and Reiss is too tactful, and working at too great a distance to pull him out whole.

There's also a troubling chasm between the vivid accounts of the times and the unfolding story of the man. Reiss resists fitting his man into the times. We get the times, then items from Nussimbaum's vita. Occasionally, an octogenarian eyewitness will weigh in with a live sighting or an impression.

Why read this book? Well, it's a painless way to absorb a lot of history. But why write it? Given the present climate in the Mideast, the author must have thought this was the right time to highlight a place (Baku) and a time (the early 20th century) in which Jew and Muslim lived in peace, did business together, and even enjoyed each other's company. And that seems -- from our standpoint in time -- a curiosity indeed.

Jean McGarry is a professor and chair of The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University and author of six works of fiction. Her most recent book of stories is Dream Date.

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