Magazine article The Spectator

A Fantasist of the First Order

Magazine article The Spectator

A Fantasist of the First Order

Article excerpt

A fantasist of the first order THE ORIENTALIST: IN SEARCH OF A MAN CAUGHT BETWEEEN EAST AND WEST by Tom Reiss Chatto, £17.99, pp. 433, ISBN 070117885X * £15.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Many years ago, in one of those precious moments of serendipity, I came across a novel called Ali and Nino, set in the Azerbaijani city of Baku. This seductive, life-enhancing story tells of a love affair between a Muslim and a Christian at the city's pivotal moment, just as the oil begins to flow at the beginning of the 20th century. In foreground and background, it deals with what today would be called the clash of civilisations, with Muslim/Christian, East/West, rich/poor tensions. I found it so compelling that I have since reread it several times, given copies to friends and lived with its characters and their dilemma. But what of its author? The novel was credited to Kurban Said, but that was known to be a nom de plume and my edition of Ali and Nino explained that the author's real identity was lost. Thanks to Tom Reiss's obsessive investigation, it has now been found.

Reiss, a US journalist, was handed a copy of the novel in 1998, when he went to observe Azerbaijan's new oil boom. In Baku, he discovered that the novel lives on in people's minds and so too does its author: 'Most everyone in Baku wanted to claim the novel for his or her own reason.' For five years and through Italy, Austria, the US and elsewhere, Reiss tracked his quarry. Kurban Said, he discovered, was also known as Essad Bey and as Lev Nussimbaum, the name he was given at birth. However fertile his imagination, Nussimbaum never came up with a story to match his own remarkable, romantic and, in the end, tragic life.

Why the alter egos? Someone born into a migrant Jewish family in the early 20th-century, even the son of an oil magnate and a revolutionary, would have had reasons to cover his tracks, but it becomes clear that whatever other reasons he had, the alter egos also suited Nussimbaum's character. …

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