grist

 

Saturday, July 30, 2005
I've been tripped amid a set of fragmented books--Robert Lowell's Letters, Ben Marcus's The Age of Wire and String, Kelly Link's Magic for Beginngers--and nothing quite come into focus for reporting on.

A friend recommended Ali and Nino by Kurban Said with a set of undercutting disclaimers--that it was a good eye into a region I have been thinking of writing about (central asia), that regardless it was a quick read, that it would be enjoyable if not transformative. So, tired of the fragments, I gave it a shot.

We were a very mixed lot, we forty schoolboys who were having a geography lesson one hot afternoon in the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia: thiry Mohammmedans, four Armenians, two Poles, three Sectarians, and one Russian.

It's a great book that feels like it keeps slipping into some diminished version of itself as I describe what makes it great. Vivid evovacations of place, great characters, a great plot that moves and moves; it seems about to slip into parody, a cardboard edge about to reveal itself, but it doesn't. It seems about to invite cynicism, but remains defiantly and compellingly sincere.

Kurban Said is a pen name of Essad Bey, which is a pen name for Lev Nussimbaum, a German Jew born in Baku. But the book was written also with an Austrian Baronness, Elfriede Ehrenfels--though the exact extent of their collaboration is unknown. Nussimbaum himself is a fascinating character, and the subject of a recent biography, The Orientalist. I feel a little at a loss at how to describe the book--something short of astonishing, but certainly excellent--3.5 menhirs worth of good reading, and one that makes you want to travel to places that may, perhaps, be impossible to arrive at.



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