Friday, March 20, 2009

The Orientalist: A story of a remarkable life among the Bolsheviks, Ottomans, and Nazis

I won't forget having to drag myself through some of the slower sections of The Orientalist, but in the end it's a great story set at a pivotal time in history. I'm glad to have read it. To me, the best part of the book is how the author Tom Reiss uncovers the story of Lev Nussimbaum. I was interested to read about Lev's bizarre and tragic life and I loved hearing about all the people that the author tracked down in pursuing Lev's story.

It amazed me that the confusion created by the historical events of the first half of the twentieth century was so great that, even in modern times, many people did not know that Lev was in fact the author of a classic work of literature that has come to help define a large city. This was a great mystery that really set the stage for Lev's story. His reinventions of himself clearly led to the confusion and it was cool to see how those reinventions were in part a response to the historical events that dominated his life.

I got a little bogged down in some of the wide historical digressions. I kept thinking: get back to Lev! Clearly Lev lived in an interesting time and place, and furthermore, he was really part of the action, not just a bystander. In light of his participation as a writer (especially as a biographer) in events of massive historic magnitude, it made sense to set the historical stage. However, there is such a thing as too much information and there were definitely some parts of the book for which I knew I was going to forget the details almost immediately after I read them.

One historical aspect I did enjoy reading about was the feuding political parties of the era. Hearing about the epic struggles for power between communists, Nazis, and monarchists of all varieties makes our current debates between democrats and republicans look like pretty tame. It was truly remarkable (and quite unfortunate) that Lev's life brushed so closely with both the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of the Nazis. Obviously Lev payed dearly for these brushes with evil regimes, his father losing his livelihood to the Bolsheviks and Lev to the Nazis.

My general impression of Lev was that he was a pretty weird guy. His bizarre personality, especially his fetishizing of Muslim culture, left me to wonder whether he was naturally a wannabe/poser or whether the extraordinary circumstances of his life somehow brought on an identity crisis. I think his chosen identity is not so different from a suburban white kid who fetishizes gangster rap. I was interested to learn that the dagger-wearing Muslim shieks were in those days considered symbols of virile masculinity, much the way rappers are today. I think we may have discussed this theme of self reinvention in other books, but I can't remember the context now. Maybe someone else remembers.

At some points in the book, I found myself wanting to know a little bit more about Lev's personality. For example, I was left curious about how his divorce unfolded. On the one hand, it sounded like Lev was being cheated on; on the other hand, it sounds like Lev was being abusive with his morbid rants, but I couldn't quite tell if those morbid rants were factual or invented. What was he really like to hang out with? Would he really act that way?

All in all I enjoyed the book. I think what I most took away from it is the powerlessness that can befall anyone who is caught in the wrong historical moment. Thanks to Chris for recommending this book and getting us copies!

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