On the Trail of Kurban Said
On a cold November morning in Vienna, I walked a maze of narrow streets on the way to see a man who promised to solve the mystery of Kurban Said. I was with Peter Mayer, the president of the Overlook Press, a large, rumpled figure in a black corduroy suit who wanted to publish Said's small romantic novel Ali and Nino. Mayer tended to burst into enthusiastic monologues about the book: "You know how when you look at a Vermeer, and it's an interior, and it's quite quiet, yet somehow, what he does with perspective, with light, it feels much biggerthat's this novel!" A love story set in the Caucasus on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Ali and Nino had been originally published in German in 1937 and was revived in translation in the seventies as a minor classic. But the question of the author's identity had never been resolved. All anyone agreed on was that Kurban Said was the pen name of a writer who had probably come from Baku, an oil city in the Caucasus, and that he was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulags, or the dilettante son of an oil millionaire, or a Viennese café-society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot. In the jacket photograph of a book called Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, the mysterious author is dressed up as a mountain warriorwearing a fur cap, a long, flowing coat with a sewn-in bandolier, and a straight dagger at his waist.
Mayer and I were on our way to a meeting with a lawyer named Heinz Barazon, who was challenging Overlook over proper author credit on the novel. Barazon claimed to know the true identity of Kurban Said, and as the lawyer for the author's heirs, he was insisting that it be acknowledged in the new edition of Ali and Nino or he would block publication. At the lawyer's address, next to a shop where some old women were bent over tables with needle and thread, we were buzzed into a lobby that could have had the grime of the Anschluss on its fixtures. Mayer squeezed my arm with excitement and said, "It's The Third Man!" Barazon's appearance didn't do anything to dispel the atmosphere of a Cold War thriller. He was a small man with a gravelly voice, a stooped back, and a clubfoot that made a tremendous racket as he led us down his book-lined hallway. "You have both come a long way to discover the identity of Kurban Said," he said. "It will all soon become clear to you." He ushered us into a room where a gaunt and beautiful blond woman with enormous glassy eyes was lying motionless on a couch. "Pardon me, this is Leela," said Barazon.
"I hope you'll forgive me," Leela said in a fragile, precise voice. "I must remain lying down because I'm ill. I can't sit for long."
Barazon came directly to the point: the novel Ali and Nino was written by the Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof, the second wife of Leela's father, Baron Omar-Rolf von Ehrenfels, and when Baroness Elfriede died, in the early 1980s, having outlived her husband, all rights to the work had passed down to Leela.
Barazon produced a thick file of documents that backed up this story: publishing contracts, legal papers, and author lists from the late thirties, stamped with Nazi eagles and swastikas. Under the entry for "Said, Kurban" in the author's section of the 193539 Deutscher Gesamtkatalogthe Third Reich's equivalent of Books in Printit said, in no uncertain terms, "pseudonym for Ehrenfels, v. Bodmershof, Elfriede, Baroness."
The Nazi documents seemed to tell a clear storythat Baroness Elfriede had been Kurban Saidbut it was one that I believed to be untrue.
I had become interested in the identity of Kurban Said in the spring of 1998, when I went to Baku to write about the city's new oil boom virtually the first signs of life since the Russian Revolution made time stop there in 1917. Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, a tiny country that prides itself on being the easternmost point in Europe, though most Europeans wouldn't know it. Its proximity to Iran and the fact that the majority of its citizens are Shiite Muslims can dominate your vision of Azerbaijan until you realize that the most impressive public building in Baku is not a mosque but a copy of the grand casino at Monte Carlo. Baku is the sort of city that has been beyond rigid ideologies and religions for a thousand years. Its name is said to derive from a Persian expression, baadiyekubiden, or "blow of the winds." Being situated at the head of a desert peninsula jutting into the sea, the city is in fact one of the windiest places on earthone dapper ninety-seven-year-old man told me how, as a young man, he and his family had worn specially made goggles with their evening clothes to stroll along the boulevards without being blinded by the sands.
Excerpted from The Orientalist by Tom Reiss Copyright © 2005 by Tom Reiss. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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