Friday, March 20, 2009

the Orientalist, Keep the History Coming

I read the Orientalist some time ago now. I'll start with just a couple words about how I remember it a few months on. The thing I took most from the Orientalist was an interest in the history it covered, and also a broader sense of how truly rich and vast human history is.

And here are my comments from shortly after finishing (apparently the last draft was saved on December 17th):

Overall, I enjoyed it a lot. A very rich, thorough, and at times confusing history of Eurasia. In fact there was so much in there I feel like I missed half of the book thanks to my poor knowledge of the region's history. But a clever device intertwining Lev's life with the history of the region.

When I first started reading I had trouble getting into it. In retrospect I think he went too into the detailed and hard-to-follow family history of Lev. I know it was important - actually more than important. I think the author felt it a central point to his book, but I could not follow those names only a couple pages in. I think a shorter version of that or getting into the nitty-gritty later would have been better. A reader only partially interested could have felt overwhelmed quickly if not paying careful attention.

The next part of the book I remember a lot was the chapter "the escape", which was fascinating. Hearing about their travels left me feeling mesmerized for the Orient, let alone Lev who was there. The crazy messenger who expected a bribe but came up without the lightest hint of venal inflection to his voice (in Lev's view) was great. Then Lev worrying he'd turn into a pleasure boy! But of all the craziness I think my favorite part was when Lev and the Armenian's truck broke down leaving them riding on horses with fake business papers claiming they were fishing expects out collecting fishing supplies by horse. And, of course, the unlikelihood of Lev running into his father in that village to escape possible death was straight out of hollywood.

To mention one more incredible situation was when Abraham and Lev got into Constantinople because the British were in charge and waived the first class passengers through citing they were "above political suspicion" just because they were rich. This chapter also introduced me to the important history of the Young Turks and their disastrous effort to modernize Turkey and then scapegoating the Armenians.

Lev's arrival in Berlin is where I became more interested in the history than in Lev's life. Reading about the Russian's huge influence in Germany was news to me! I had no idea the gravity of the Russian emigres presence had in Berlin. And Lev being caught in the middle of multiple revolutions must have been an unreal time period to be alive. It impressed on me how far behind Germany and most of the european countries were even in the 20th century. Reiss also selected some really choice individuals to follow in a few chapters about this topic. I thought Walther Ratheneu was a particularly interesting one. Being into the assimilation of Jews into Germany and holding such a high post after being an amazing businessman. At the time he must have been just about the most obvious target alive in Germany. I remember reading the sentence about him musing over his own assassination and just nodding. But what truly got me about this man was that after crying when Germany instigated WWI he then proceeded to be one of the most clever logistical organizers to the German's offensive. Setting up the Imperial Raw Materials Office after being laughed at for suggesting the war might last up to and over a year. Reiss said this may have prolonged Germany's war effort for 1-2 years!

It was the carefully selected history and the way it affected people and was perceived by people that really made the book for me. When Reiss went to the Italian village and the villagers refused to believe him regarding the grave is a great example of how much perception rules. Maybe someone else can retell this story for me, I've forgotten exactly what happened.

This is a perfect book for me to re-read, even soon, because even re-reading what I wrote in December I found I'd forgotten some of it.

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