Many years ago, in one of those precious moments of seren- dipity, I came across a novel called Ali and Nino, set in the Azerbaijani city of Baku. This seductive, life-enhancing story tells of a love affair between a Muslim and a Christian at the city’s pivotal moment, just as the oil begins to flow at the beginning of the 20th century. In foreground and background, it deals with what today would be called the clash of civilisations, with Muslim/Christian, East/West, rich/poor tensions. I found it so compelling that I have since reread it several times, given copies to friends and lived with its characters and their dilemma. But what of its author? The novel was credited to Kurban Said, but that was known to be a nom de plume and my edition of Ali and Nino explained that the author’s real identity was lost. Thanks to Tom Reiss’s obsessive investigation, it has now been found.
Reiss, a US journalist, was handed a copy of the novel in 1998, when he went to observe Azerbaijan’s new oil boom. In Baku, he discovered that the novel lives on in people’s minds and so too does its author: ‘Most everyone in Baku wanted to claim the novel for his or her own reason.’ For five years and through Italy, Austria, the US and elsewhere, Reiss tracked his quarry. Kurban Said, he discovered, was also known as Essad Bey and as Lev Nussimbaum, the name he was given at birth. However fertile his imagination, Nussimbaum never came up with a story to match his own remarkable, romantic and, in the end, tragic life.
Why the alter egos? Someone born into a migrant Jewish family in the early 20th- century, even the son of an oil magnate and a revolutionary, would have had reasons to cover his tracks, but it becomes clear that whatever other reasons he had, the alter egos also suited Nussimbaum’s character. As a child, he became fascinated by the exotic — invariably Muslim — quarters of the city, which he visited with bodyguards. As an adult, world events kept him moving on ahead of purges, revolution and Holocaust. In a changing world, he remained constant only to his father and his work; by the mid-1930s, he was the internationally renowned author of some 16 books, including biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, the last tsar and Joseph Stalin. Yet by 1942 he was in Positano, wasted, impoverished, dying.
Nussimbaum emerges from this meticulous and fascinating book as a fantastist, a master of disguise; this talent makes it hard for Reiss to pin him down. But then even those who knew him well were uncertain who was the real man. Indeed, he was so skilled an impersonator that his wife, heiress to a shoe fortune, believed he was a Muslim prince of Persian or Turkic blood. When she discovered the truth (he had converted to Islam by then and was known as Essad Bey, but he certainly wasn’t a prince), she divorced him.
Reiss does two things very well. He delves into the man’s passions, particularly Nussim- baum’s orientalist leanings and his love of the multicultural, many-tongued world of tsars and oil barons of his childhood; and he reveals the world in which the prodigiously talented writer lived, those interwar years, the privileged upbringing, the literary success in Berlin and Vienna, the empty glitz in New York and his decline as fascism spread through Europe. In our own times, as chasms open between east and west, Jew, Christian and Muslim, the story of a man straddling the divides makes inspiring reading.
Anthony Sattin’s The Gates of Africa: Death, Discovery and the Search for Timbuktu is published by HarperPerennial at £8.99.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 23, 2005