Chameleonic existence in a world gone mad

Gideon Lewis-Kraus is deputy editor of the Threepenny Review.

In 1905, Lev Nussimbaum was born on a train crossing the Caucasus; his parents were shtetl Jews from far Eastern Europe who found both sanctuary from anti-Semitism and sudden oil wealth amid the ethnic sprawl of Azerbaijan. When Nussimbaum died in Italy while hiding from the Nazis in 1942, he was known as Kurban Said, fascist sympathizer, czarist partisan, bestselling novelist and the son of a Persian-Turkic nobleman and a fallen Russian aristocrat. In between, he took the name Essad Bey and styled himself as a Muslim prince who wrote biographies of Czar Nicholas II, Josef Stalin and Reza Shah Pahlavi and was an admired commentator in Germany on Eastern affairs.

An unornamented chronicle of such Zelig-like shape-shifting would be arresting enough; in “The Orientalist,” however, Tom Reiss furnishes not only the riveting story of how Lev Nussimbaum became Kurban Said but also a sympathetic, elegant and extraordinarily affecting account of how his protean identity arose from a climate of near-constant upheaval.

The backdrop of Nussimbaum’s youth -- and of his lifelong fabulations -- was fin de siecle Baku, an Azerbaijani oil-boom city on the Caspian Sea that had been variously controlled by marauding Mongols, Ottomans, Persians and Russians. Azerbaijan’s haphazard colonial history, vast tangle of mountain tribes and desert nomads, and explosion of wealth contributed to an urbane and tolerant atmosphere.

Nussimbaum had a dreamy, bookish childhood under the spell of the surrounding desert and the decadent palaces of Islamic potentates; it was, he wrote, “the epitome of peaceful, ancient, silent grandeur.” His father was a wealthy oil baron and his mother was an unhappy revolutionary who killed herself by drinking acid when he was 7; she may have been using her husband’s fortune to finance the Georgian hick who would become Stalin.


When Nussimbaum was 12, he and his father fled Russia’s spreading Bolshevik Revolution. They traveled across the Caspian to Turkestan, where they hid in walled and secluded cities such as Bukhara. They eventually caravaned south across the desert to Persia (now Iran), where they were attacked by dervish bandits, then back across the Caspian, where they were attacked by monarchist pirates, to Baku, which had been liberated by the German-Turkish army. Within a year, however, the Bolsheviks had reconquered the city, and Nussimbaum had to depart once more, this time in an equally improbable, picaresque escape -- with forged papers from the Bolshevik Ministry of Fisheries -- across Armenia to Georgia.

Nussimbaum and his father finally arrived in Berlin, the Russian emigre capital of Europe, via Constantinople, Rome and Paris. As a student there, Nussimbaum began to transform himself into Bey, a writer who would become famous for his essays on Bolshevism, Islam and Europe’s relationship to the East. He converted to Islam and reinvented the circumstances of his birth, although he took no particular pains to hide the facts of his existence from cafe-society friends. Before his death, as Reiss has for the first time definitively proven, Nussimbaum would reimagine himself once more as the novelist Said, whose 1937 bestseller, “Ali and Nino,” is still in print today.

Nussimbaum’s story is so fanciful and charming, if eventually tragic, that a writer less talented and inspired might have been forgiven for presenting him -- turbaned, robed, his anecdotes agleam with curved daggers -- merely as a foppish mannerist with an Oriental fetish. Reiss, however, describes Nussimbaum’s posturing as a quirky but nevertheless serious attempt to navigate the increasingly virulent extremisms of the 1920s.

He weaves Nussimbaum’s story with fascinating mini-profiles of similarly idiosyncratic personalities in a sea of communist red flags and fascist brown shirts. These seem at first digressive. Cumulatively, however, they provide a context -- an elaborate wonder-cabinet of iconoclasts amid fanatics -- that deepens our understanding of Nussimbaum’s often inscrutable eccentricities. There’s Else Lasker-Schuler, the poet who called herself a “wild Jew” and gave public sermons in a made-up language she called “Asiatic"; Nussimbaum’s wife, Erika Bey, the dilettante daughter of shoe magnate Walter “Daddy” Loewendahl (whom Reiss calls “the Crazy Eddie of Weimar Berlin”) who left Nussimbaum for a Hungarian-Jewish Orientalist; and Dr. Ahmed Vacca-Mazara, an Italian fascist Islamic parachutist who ferried war secrets to North African insurgents.


Nussimbaum had traveled from Russia, where shrill and murderous radicalisms collaborated to destroy a fragile social democratic center, to Germany, where shrill and murderous radicalisms were about to do the same thing. His Orientalism, as Reiss perceptively frames it, risked a middle ground between homicidally overweening doctrines. In contrast to the racist nationalism of the fascists, Nussimbaum’s Caucasus represented cosmopolitanism; as a bulwark against the leveling forces of communism, Baku’s crumbling archways were held fast by timeless roots.

Nazis despised Jews as parasitic vagabonds. So Nussimbaum manufactured a homeland, but an exotic one paradoxically defined by the lively and miscellaneous tumult of a pan-ethnic bazaar. And unlike the social democracies of the Weimar Republic or Aleksandr Kerensky’s provisional government in Russia, the Caucasus of cliffs and dunes defied labels of liberal softness or bourgeois pedestrianism. What Reiss aptly calls “the Orient of the imagination” is the land of the rugged center: between religions, between continents, between Eastern mesmerism and Western rationality.

It will inevitably be said that “The Orientalist” reads like a novel, which is always a backhanded compliment. It is, to be sure, as page-turningly compelling as any brisk fiction. Reiss’ storytelling panache and wry narrative voice make even his 10-page histories of White Russian emigre politics or Baltic German treachery in interwar Berlin spellbinding. The broader prejudice of this compliment is that only a novel, which is imaginative rather than merely informative, can reveal characters in all their baffling fullness. But Reiss, like any top-flight nonfiction writer, explains without demystifying.

The question of how, exactly, Nussimbaum became Kurban Said is answered through exhaustive sleuthing and unbelievable luck, as Reiss’ five years of intercontinental detective work ferreted out Nussimbaum’s lost secret notebooks.

Yet the real achievement of this book -- and it is a significant one -- is that in solving the prosaic puzzle, Reiss has preserved the romantic allure. At times, Reiss describes Nussimbaum’s Orientalism as a deliberate gambit; at times, he allows it to be a purely unconscious chameleonic peculiarity. Reiss has illuminated the details of Nussimbaum’s life without diminishing his cryptic glamour. *