A first English translation of a 1938 novel by the pseudonymous Eurasian author of the classic romance Ali and Nino (not reviewed): another incisive portrayal of the cultural incompatibility of East and West.
The story’s set initially in Berlin in 1928, where young Turkish blond beauty Asiadeh Anbari studies philology (“learning the language of my wild ancestors”). Meanwhile, her father Achmed-Pasha, an exiled “imperial minister” of their embattled country, works in a carpet shop and subsists on coffeehouse conversations about his family’s, and his country’s, glorious past. Asiadeh had been promised to a Prince, likewise exiled, whose whereabouts remain unknown. She falls in love with and marries Eurasian physician Alexander Hassa, honeymooning in Sarajevo, then moving with him to Vienna, where the many cultural differences between them are exacerbated by Asiadeh’s uneasy détente with her husband’s brisk rationality (“hers was the Orient’s distrust against the world of technical skill”). Then, in a parallel narrative, the missing Prince (Abdul-Kerim) shows up—as jaded New York film scriptwriter “John Rolland.” A particularly clunky plot twist informs him of Asiadeh’s location, and the old ways insinuate themselves powerfully into both characters’ new lives. “Kurban Said”—in reality Lev Nussumbaum (1905-42, a Jew who had converted to Islam—doesn’t reach the heights of narrative and thematic clarity and unity that so distinguish Ali and Nino in this rather contrived and rambling tale. Nevertheless, it has several important strengths: a deeply felt, lucidly presented contrast of old and new worlds; a quixotic heroine who reminds us more than a little of Tolstoy’s Natasha Rostov; and an urbane style studded with witty phrases and metaphors (at a lavish buffet, “the red lobsters looked like meditating philosophers”).
Stylish and amusing, buoyed up on plaintive emotional undercurrents. Any reader who loved Ali and Nino won’t want to miss it.