Where's the book?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Book #11: The Orientalist

Has this ever happened to you? You hear someone describe a book or a movie or a play and think to yourself, that sounds fantastic! I have to see/read it! But then you see/read it and realize that their description was far more exciting and enjoyable than anything the screen or stage or page has to offer.

That just happened to me.

At a dinner one recent evening, a friend was talking about a book she had recently read. The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life sounded fantastic, in both senses of the word. A terrific, thrilling, page-turner of a true story about an almost too-crazy-to-be-believed life.

The book is journalist Tom Reiss’s exploration of the life of one Lev Nussimbaum. Never heard of him? Neither had pretty much anyone else. But Nussimbaum managed to publish nearly 20 books, many of them best-sellers, and live a short but dramatic life that touched on every major event and locale of the first half of the twentieth century, before dying and virtually vanishing from record. Born Jewish in Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, in 1905, Nussimbaum was the son of an oil millionaire and a Bolshevik revolutionary (and friend of
Lev when he was Lev
Stalin when he was still Iosef Dzhugashvili) who committed suicide when her son was just five years old.

To mention just a few of the more amazing adventures in Nussimbaum’s brief life: He and his father escaped the Soviets by camel, journeying into Turkestan and Persia before ending up in Istanbul just in time for the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Finding themselves penniless refugees, they moved on to Paris, and then Berlin, where Nussimbaum became Essad Bey, a celebrated author and, as he let people believe, a Muslim prince. There were encounters with Nazis, a visit to New York, yet another name change—to Kurban Said—marriage and divorce, two world wars, Mussolini’s Italy, and much, much more.

Lev when he was Essad
Too much, in fact. Author Reiss suffers from an inability to let go of any fact he has ever learned. The book spends more time on historical digressions than it does on the life of poor Lev/Essad/Kurban. Pages and pages of history go by and Lev is left by the roadside, so much so that by the time we return to his story—ostensibly the story of the book—we’ve forgotten where we left the poor fellow.

I learned a lot about the Russian Revolution, the Ottoman Empire, and the Weimar Republic. But in the end, I didn’t feel that I really knew Lev Nussimbaum, other than superficially. I knew the what of his life, but not the why. Much like he vanished from the world stage, he nearly vanishes from the pages of the book that is, we were promised, about him. 

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