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May 24-30, 2006

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'The Orientalist'

The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life
REVIEW (By Tom Reiss; Random House; 447 Pages, $14.95 paper)
—Michael S. Gant

With more layers than a piece of baklava, once-famous novelist Kurban Said, a.k.a. bestselling journalist Essed Bey, skated through the minefields of the Russian Revolution, World War I, Weimar Berlin, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy before succumbing, at the age of 35. He left behind 17 books, a worldwide reputation that would soon be utterly eclipsed and a secret worthy of an Eric Ambler spy novel. Born in 1905 in the oil-rich Azerbaijan capital of Baku, Lev Nussimbaum was the pampered son of a Jewish millionaire and his Russian-Revolution-sympathizing wife (who committed suicide by drinking a caustic poison when the contradiction got to be too much for her). The polyglot, polytheistic world Nussimbaum grew up in was under siege from the Bolsheviks almost as soon as Lev was born, and he spent the rest of his life inventing fantastical identities for himself as he tried to outrace the brutal realities of racial and totalitarian politics in the 20th century. After an amazing escape across Persia and Central Asia fleeing the Reds, Lev and his father became part of a floating army of exiles (including the Nabokov family, Vladimir et al.). Eventually, Lev ended up in Berlin and became an Orientalist, a Jew who, like Benjamin Disraeli before him, sought his roots in the desert, who believed that Arabs and Jews were brothers at heart. Eventually, he claimed to be a full-blown Muslim prince, a warrior from the Caucasus Mountains, and started writing books about the East under the pseudonyms Kurban Said and Essed Bey. It was good enough to keep the suspicious Nazis at bay for a few years. Tom Reiss' engrossing book is as much a mystery story as a biography, since he had to ferret out the buried facts of Said's life. His investigations include a surreal interview with an aging countess who lives in a musty castle and only receives visitors after midnight. The author's biggest break comes when he discovers Nussimbaum's last, unpublished manuscript. Reiss does an exceptional job of sorting out confabulation from fact in a life built on shifting sands.


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