Kurban Said, author of the cult ’30s romance Ali and Nino, was a complicated man — so complicated, it seems, no one could figure out who he was for 60 years. Some evidence suggested he was an Azerbaijani noble named Essad Bey; some pegged him as a Viennese baroness. In fact, he was just lonely, lovelorn Lev Nussimbaum, an obscure Jewish refugee shorn of his family’s oil millions when the Bolsheviks took the oil city of Baku and vitiated the tolerant mongrel cosmopolitanism of the old ”Orient.”
New Yorker contributor Tom Reiss spent five years putting all the pieces together for The Orientalist, discovering how a hothouse plant from the Caucasus passed himself off as a dashing Muslim sage in Nazi Germany before perishing alone in Italy at age 36, wasted by a strange gangrenous rot and still vying to be Mussolini’s biographer. The result of Reiss’ efforts is largely thrilling, novelistic, and rich with the personal and political madness of early-20th-century Europe. Lev, as Reiss affectionately calls him, was a living contradiction, his ”father: an industrial magnate in the oil industry; mother: a radical revolutionary.” Stalin himself may have dined at his table. (May have — Lev was a notoriously untrustworthy chronicler of his own life, even in his deathbed manuscript.) Escaping the Russian Revolution with his father, the young man ”traded one dying identity — son of a Jewish cosmopolitan from Baku — for another.”
Lev became a creation of his own Oriental nostalgia, assuming the dress, manners, and religion of an Ottoman warrior. Taking a similarly à la carte approach to political philosophy, he dabbled in fascism (any port in the Red storm) and pan-Islamism. Race, creed, fact, and fiction blend and blur in Lev, and Reiss doesn’t dismiss this shape-shifting as the survival tactics of a self-loathing exile — the desert drag and Byzantine exoticism seem almost heroic, myths willed into reality by the last premodern man. Reiss sometimes overdoes the historical background, to the point where Lev occasionally seems a supporting character in his own biography. But when this singular man’s several selves are center stage in The Orientalist, the harmonies are strange and plaintive.