This book was an unusual reading experience in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s an engaging story, and accessible; the narrator, Ali, is candid about his thoughts and feelings. At the same time, I never lost sight of the fact that it comes from across a wide gap in time and culture.
Ali and Nino is set mostly in Baku, Azerbaijan, around the start of World War I. The two young people of the title--Ali Khan Shirvanshir, a Shi’ite Muslim of Iranian descent, and Nino Kipiani, a Georgian Christian--are in love, but the cultural divide complicates their relationship. Meanwhile, political upheaval threatens whatever happiness they’re able to find.
For the first part of the book, I thought the cultural and historical detail was more interesting than the plot, but the plot gets better as it goes and the last third is the most memorable. I especially liked the part dealing with the brief existence of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Ali and Nino’s relationship was also more interesting than I expected: rather than repeating the common boy-meets-girl plotline in which the characters fall in love, the book starts with them in love as of Chapter 1 and then looks the more difficult question of making that relationship work.
There’s definitely orientalism here--when the author’s biography is entitled The Orientalist, I guess that should come as no surprise. It’s not orientalist in the sense of being unable to look past the weirdness of an Asian society to its humanity and complexity--there is a diverse set of Muslim characters and who are individuals--but it certainly revels in the exotic and bizarre and sometimes backward aspects of “Asia” (one indicator that this is not a recent book is the use of “Asia” to refer to the Muslim world). There’s a sense of complicity with the reader in showing us all this weirdness; for instance, Nino denies the existence of Ali’s family’s eunuch servant to English diplomats for the sake of European social acceptability, but we the readers meet this character in all of his exotic glory. And some of the East-meets-West type scenes, like the car chase involving a car and a horse (you can guess who has the car and who the horse), feel a little over the top.
Graman’s translation is overall quite readable, but consistently uses archaic spellings (even though the translation itself only came out in 1970). At times I did wonder about its faithfulness: would Muslims really have referred to themselves as “Mohammedans,” even 100 years ago?
This sounds like a lot of criticism, but it is a fairly good book, set in a little-known part of the world but dealing with issues that are still timely today. One can tell it isn’t a recent book--there’s a lot of name-dropping that must have been familiar at the time but is quite obscure today--but the characters’ motivations are understandable and their story interesting. I’d recommend this book to those who are looking to branch out in their reading.