Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Ali and Nino
My friend Tatiana, who shares my devotion to Dorothy Parker and is one of the most voracious readers I know, lent me a copy of Ali and Nino: A Love Story. It isn't earth-shatteringly brilliant prose, but quite compelling. But it is largely set in the 1910s in an interesting part of the world: the Caucusus, where Georgia, Armenian and what becomes Baku, Azerbaijan. The story is about Ali (a Muslim Azerbaijani) who falls in loves and marries Nino (a Georgian princess). Much of the novel takes place during World War I (Veteran's Day appropriate).
The cover of the novel says that it's by Kurban Said. The copyright page says it's owned by the late Leela Ehrenfels, the stepdaughter of an Austrian countess, Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof. I started looking for more information about Said and the Baroness. It seems that Kurban Said is a pseudonym, but other than that, there are a few possibilities for the author. There is a great New Yorker article from 1999 about exactly this: "A Reporter at Large: The Man from the East" by Tom Reiss. The novel has a reputation for being much-loved in Azerbaijan and Iran. Reiss' hunt-the-author tale is quite a story in itself. If it is not the Baroness, it is Essad Bey, who was born Lev Nassimbaum. Nassimbaum grew up in Baku, where his father was in the oil business. The Reiss article has wonderful photographs in it, too, including a Viennese group shot with Mike Nichols as a toddler and his father with Nassimbaum. Naussimbaum made two trips to the U.S., where he became friendly with George Sylvester Viereck, who was later jailed as a Nazi agent. (In college, I studied with Viereck's late son Peter, who was most definitely not a Nazi agent.) Eventually, Naussibaum fled Germany for Austria, and fled Austria for Positano, Italy, where he died of natural causes in 1942.