The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life – Tom Reiss

Claiming this work is simply a biography is akin to reducing Hamlet to a story about a depressed guy. Reiss painstaking uncovering of the once famous, now forgotten, author (Kurban Said AKA Essad Bey AKA Lev Nussimbaun) is a tapestry of detective work, history lesson, and travel guide that taught me more about the Caucasus, twentieth century Europe (the first half), and Judaism than I ever learned in college.

The tale of Lev Nussimbaun, who escaped Revolutionary Russia as an insecure son of a Jewish oil baron and became a self-declared Muslim prince and widely successful author in Nazi Germany (and today is considered the national author of Azerbaijan, although his true identity is denied), begs to be told and Reiss’ novelistic, comprehensively researched writing provides an elegant, compelling blend of journalism, academia, and poignancy. The work fizzles towards the end, refusing to delve into Lev’s time in an asylum or to divulge his emotions on numerous topics from his father to the Fuhrer, as if Reiss’ biography must emulate its subject with a furious ascent and quiet, disquieting finale.

The Orientalist, whether deliberately or unconsciously has the secondary purpose of speaking to the futility of assimilation (specifically Jewish) and more importantly, in a world where Iran has “proven” the Holocaust a fabrication, that historical realities are elusive vicissitudes more akin to fugitives needing to be hunted down and captured for the benefit of societies.