Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ali & Nino

In pre-World War I Azerbaijan the cultural chasms are as deep as the oil wells that surround the city. Muslim Ali Khan, the scion of the wealthy and powerful Shirvanshir family, has fallen in love with Princess Nino Kipiani, the daughter of a rich Christian merchant family. Their courtship, opposed by family and friends, is disrupted by the outbreak of war. A time of great change is coming for Russia and for the Middle East, and the young lovers must decide whether they belong to Europe or Asia. Rich with depictions of the people of the Caucasus and affecting in its portrayal of youthful romance, Ali and Nino has been called “a jewel of a book” by the New York Times Book Review. This is not just a simple love story. But it is a romance, and a journey through the Caucasus, and a love story of operatic proportions. Ali & Nino by Kurban Said is all of these things presented as a somewhat traditional novel by a very nontraditional author. It is a romance in the tradition of great romantic literature. Ali Kahn, the narrator and hero, becomes a hero conquering his enemies in love and in war. As a national hero he is portrayed as growing into the position of national icon, the sort of mythic hero about whom wonderful stories are told. We are fortunate to read his own story. The novel shows us the Caucasus of the early twentieth century as it undergoes tremendous political change and must react to world events of war and revolution that impinge on the life of the local culture. It is a culture for which blood feuds are as important as international news. We see new nations in the process of formation: Georgia, Azerbaijan and modern Iran. At the center of the novel is the love story of Ali Kahn Shirvanshir and Nino Kipiani, one Muslim and one Christian, whose love transcends religion and culture and national borders. The author develops these characters with depth so you know them and share in their feelings. They live in the real world of the Orient but share in Western culture as naturally as they adapt to the change from the rustic village in the Caucasus to the luxurious palace in Muslim Azerbaijan. One reads of Western Opera, Faust & Eugene Onegin, being as much a part of their culture as the great Islamic poets. This made the book more engaging than any simple love story. Kurban Said, who was himself something of a mystery, created a lasting work to read again and again in Ali & Nino.

Ali & Nino: A Love Story by Kurban Said. Trans. by Jenia Graman. Anchor Books, New York. 2000 (1937)


Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



James said...

Thanks for reading and also for your comment. I am glad you enjoy my literary notes.