The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

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The Independent Culture

Lev was born into a wealthy family in the oil-rich, cosmopolitan port of Baku. In the turmoil following Russia's collapse in the First World War and the advance of the Bolsheviks into the Caucasus, Lev and his father fled to Istanbul, then to Paris and finally Germany, where Lev completed his education and took courses in Arabic and Persian.

In Germany, Lev converted to Islam, or at least pretended to. He took the name Esad Bey and went about posing as a Muslim prince from the Caucasus. In the post-war world of refugees, opportunistic capitalists and military adventurers, there were plenty of poseurs, as Reiss's unfailingly interesting narrative makes plain. What was distinctive about Lev was that he worked like stink, as a student and later as a writer. Moreover, he had real literary ability.

As Esad Bey, he published a string of books on history, biography and politics, most notably Blood and Oil in the Orient. When, in the 1930s, word of his origins leaked out, he published Ali and Nino under the name Kurban Said, to get round the Nazi proscription on Jewish writers.

There are strong autobiographical elements in the novel that Reiss draws on in his biography. Yet somehow the real Lev, or Esad or Kurban, eludes Reiss and us. Reiss never seems fully to engage with the psychology of the writer and what the man actually wrote. So Esad (let him be that) features as a somewhat ghostly figure moving through interesting places in interesting times.

Not so much interested in literary issues, Reiss is more a journalist with historical preoccupations. He excels at conjuring up the lost worlds of the inter-war period. Reiss vividly evokes old Baku with its polyglot quasi-Levantine aristocracy, Constantinople crowded with White Russian refugees, the beginnings of the German film industry at the UFA studios outside Berlin and, finally, the Fascist resort town of Positano, where Esad was to die in slow agony from Raynaud's syndrome.

We are introduced to the lost worlds of kursaals, cabaret shows, sanatoria and casinos, crowded with raffish aristocrats, ex-officers down on their luck, remittance men, small-time actresses and promoters of crank science. Reiss has a genius for diverting digressions and his readers are offered pleasant lessons on such matters as the European Jewish cult of Islam a century ago, the Yazidi devil-worshippers of Kurdistan, the history of the Russian Nihilist movement, the congress of Ottoman imperial eunuchs, the fabrication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the story of German settlers in imperial Russia.

One also gets a sense of what the political world of the 1920s and 1930s looked like to those who lived through those years, without the benefit of hindsight. Esad's father, once ensconced in Paris, traded on Azebaijani oil futures in the confident expectation that the Bolshevik phenomenon would be short-lived. Many of Esad's contemporaries were confident that the German bankers and industrialists who funded Hitler would easily be able to control that "little man" and, a little later, that Mussolini was the strong man destined to stand up to Hitler. The Orientalist is a biographical investigation in the tradition of The Quest for Corvo, A J A Symon's classic account of another eccentric literary fantasist. Though Reiss's book is not a closely focused biography and, at some level, his quest is a failure, the journey has been most entertaining and is definitely recommended.

Robert Irwin's novel 'Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh' has been re-issued by Dedalus