Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Wild And Crazy East // Lev, Kurban, Assad, we hardly knew ya

My overall take is between Chris and Anthony's: I really enjoyed the history and the story of Lev -- though not quite so much Lev as an individual, for it is hard to separate out fact from fiction here, as Bon points out.

I've been told that there is a history of Jewish Middle Easterners identifying with Muslims or Islam, with their Orientalist roots in ways similar to Lev, though his is an extreme case. We think of Jewish folk so much as "European" but of course the original Jewish tribes are Semites as are the ancestors of the Arabs .... although who is really who biologically as opposed to culturally is getting more interesting every year, with DNA and new historical research.

Along these lines: there is a well known anthropologist named Talal Assad whose father lived a similar life as Lev (without the money and flamboyance) Born to Jewish parents, he wondered and lived many places became Muhammad Assad.

here's an article on Talal Assad's father, the comparisons are striking.

Reiss's history is unreliable, I agree, and with details that are fantasy pieces. --- But hey, it's better than, and more about, a part of the world than I've ever read. That area has been a huge blank to me all these decades.

I also really found the parts set in Germany between the Wars riveting. As well as the side story on the Russian Revolution — You've got to give Lev or Kurban credit: he nailed Stalin as a Total Murderous Thug early on and fully; as uncanny as it seems, it is apparently true that Stalin was living in his father's house for a while there.

Agreed, the intro was obtuse. Not very well done. That long section on the very old woman who was claiming to have written Ali and Nino was a distraction. The intro give away the basics, taking away mystery of the who Lev really was --- but trying to substitute the mystery of Reiss tracking the story down. "We know that he probably did or thought X at that time by later at Y he does or writes..." Here we are again with a writer-in-charge of a life of someone who reinvents himself, like Timonthy Treadwell, in Grizzly Man and our friend Werner Herzog. Anthony remarks on this too.

The theme of 'The Orient' itself is at the heart of the book, making it so relevant today. Like Chris, I was mesmerized by all of those historical matters going on in and around The Way West, then The Escape, Constantinople etc.

(Incidentally, if you want to see how much of this was portrayed in and around the edges of it you have only to watch Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago — the two David Lean movies. I figure I can get a plug into these with most of my posts...:)

But the richness and complexity of things — the unknown and now largely unknowable history of that vast region: that reality which we know was there but have no solid details and traces: that fascinates me. That town built by Immigrants with all those fine houses... then their having to leave it... The history the book introduces is marvelous: what other book are you going to read that reports on an interview with the last Caliph of the Ottoman Empire, the dude in the apartment in New York?

The story of his marriage was not as interesting except in its bizarre way of showing how celebrity statuses as we know them today were in high gear back then too, even without the net. The tabloids, newspapers, and Radio were the Net in those days.

It was also fun to read the history of Baku the first big Oil City — That the Zoroastrians' original God was related to these Fires that lit up vast areas, fires coming out of the earth... was interesting for the anthropology of religion. The story of how oil has been around these many centuries but until the combustion engine came along, not so valuable. That's just 150 years, a blip in history and it may be running down... :) but think of all that it has fueled!

Agreed, the biography part is not quite so satisfying fun unless you read it as cultural history of class, and the tie with upbringing, money and status. It would be great as Anthony says to know much more about Lev psychologically ... but that is just not there enoug in the book and Reiss is not the one to try it. The snippets Chris recalls of how his father would bail them out of trouble with money sowed into his suits, or get them into first class. Class was so much more openly played in those decades. It was really dampened down in the US after the depression of the 30s and WWII ... now, it's back, with the Oligarchs and all, the Banksters. Many Upper Class folks truly believe they are the superiors of the rest of humanity. They have many middle-class people believing them! That was the big simple theme in the movie the Titanic.

By the books end, I thought the story got serious and moving...the story of Lev holding up in Positano, the Italian village, as a Muslim... I found those parts in the last chapter moving because they were reflecting the story told in a more realistic light. Lev still has and depends on his Muslim identity...but the flutter of fantastic tales is now gone from him. Now, he needed that Muslim identity to stay alive. He was a writer to the end, with not much else to do; writing 10+ hours a day...until the authorities took his typewriter away, and he started writing in longhand. He did write about 30 books, with several of them read by many thousands of people

The book ends solemnly with the last lines Nev appears to have written: "I feel I have nothing to add to these lines — Kurban Said." As Reiss says, he reverts to his deepest disguise, that of Kurban Said, author of Ali and Nino, the Romantic novel that probably was for its reader's a story that precurses what we have today in stories such as Slumdog Millionaire.

I agree with Bon, it might be interesting to read Ali and Nino -- the sketch of the story reminds me of Slumdog Millionaire.

The edition of the paperback I have contains the a number of interesting pictures of Lev.

My entry here is rambling as can be. Like Chris I read it first time over a year ago. I went back over parts of it before Christmas. It is a book that holds up well in re-reading, if you are willing to skim past the bio parts that are less interesting. It points toward so many other things that are still so vital in our world today.

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