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I am two, I am one
on 24 July 2006
This book, like its main protagonist, contains at least two stories in one. Ostensibly it is about the collapse of the old familair European world and the birth of the historical and political movements that would shape our century. But at its heart is the tale of a wandering Jew and a love story.
Early on in this compelling book Reiss writes of how Lev Nussimbaum (a.k.a Essad Bey, a.k.a. Kurban Said) despairs over the forces of revolutionary change-Bolshevism- began by transforming the human face into a grimace. For a man so obsessed with masks and shifting identites this is a telling comment.
The life and times we are drawn into -brilliantly retold by Reiss- is the story of the escape and exile of the prolific and bizarre writer, Lev Nussimbaum. The world into which he is born into is one that will become hardly recognizable as it is increasingly determined by history and biology (Communism and Fascism), the ideologies of class and race that would devastate the continent. Lev, like all escape artists, seeks to avoid any such fixing of identities or loyalties and this is what makes him such a complex character.
Along this journey from the 'wild west', oil-rich city of Baku to the cabaret of Weimar Germany we are introduced through a series of skethces to a whole host of strange and eccentric characters: Viereck, the writer and Nazi sympathizer, Ernst 'Putzi' , Hitler's Harvard-educated press secretary, Baron Omar-Rolf, Erika Lowendahl, a Jazz-age poetess whom Lev marries, Varian Fry whose mission it is to save two hundred of Europe's top intellectuals and artists from the grip of the Nazis and Italo Balbo, founder of the Italian Air Force who sets up a futurist experiment in the deserts of Libya.
But the real star of the story is, of course, Lev and this is oin no small part due to the fact that his protean , ambiguous nature of his character deeply resonates with our modern sensibilities. Was he a Jew or a Muslim?, a supporter of Mussolini or of the monarchy, a traditionalist or just a hopeless dreamer?
There is no doubt that Lev felt pangs of nostalgia for the old world; this is made clear in some intriguing chapters where his enthusiasm for the 'wild jews' of the Caucasus or his admiration for the silent infinites of the Turkmenistan desert , or his love affair with the lost splendour, the "fallen greatness" of the muslim world are made apparent.
But he was, if anything, a revolutionary conservative whose place was the "radical centre" and not on either 'side' of the 'left'/'right' divide that would tear Europe apart. In the collision of the old and new worlds, East and West, perhaps Lev's charm was in that his real loyalty was to his imagination.
As a Jew Lev must have felt the world closing in on him with the advancement of the totalitarian ideologies. Reiss doesn't cover much new ground here but it is interesting nevertheless. In some sense, Lev's partiality to monarchism was understandable. The Empires-by their sheer persistence over time- came to represent the natural order of things, a relaxed tolerance toward difference (Constantinople here being the best example)and a space where "one could be left alone". If anyhting, it was modern totalitarinaism with its absolute power to define people that was the 'closed world'. Indeed, Lev's nostalgia for the passing world is that for "the best face of Europe which was a raiant, carefree, cultivated countenance..light as a feather."
There a number of parallel stories running through this book and they raise issues that will strike us as of immediate relevance. For example, amongst the array of details that Reiss weaves into the story is the growth of the Freikorps who with their anarchic violence are the precursors to the revolutionary insurgents that we hav ebecome all too accustomed to in this day and age. We also come across Russian emigres and instinctively wonder what would have happened had the 'beautiful souls' won and not the Marxists. The latter represented, in some sense, another victory of the west (materialism) over "the East". Equally troubling is the portrait of the nihilism and aimlessness in German cities. This is apoint that the anthropolgist Hugh Brody and the sociologist Z.Bauman would agree upon: the city-dwellers are the new nomads .
And when we read of the Emerency act of 1919 to counter-act the 'threat from the East' we are immediately drawn to the State of Exception in our own times.
At the centre of this book, then, is the remarkable and captivating story of a person who has deep sympathies-like other Jewish orientalists- with the profound pluralism of the old world (European and Muslim, East and West). Perhaps this is a story for our times. Ina world that is increasingly being driven into exclusivities: 'us OR them' perhaps the story of Lev offers the opportunity of bridging such artifical divides...us AND them perhaps?
But even if we put the politics of it to one side we are left with an account of an attractive style of soul. It is what Reiss calls 'Zweieinsanikeit'- "grace-filled dual solitude".