At long last, I'm reading Bella's favorite!
Summary: The love story of a Muslim named Ali and a Georgian named Nino, who grow up in the early 20th century in Baku on the Caspian Sea. Ali narrates their lives, times, and travels.
A scattering of impressions (minus some spoilers I've deleted from this post)...
It feels like a fairy tale, beyond exotic, with musical phrases like "the Lyceum of the Holy Queen Tamar," and "the red-golden horses of Karabagh"...
The strange thrill of being geographically and culturally oriented in a completely new way, anchored on this place called Baku as the center of the world. "Asia" and "Oriental" don't mean anything close to China and Japan. This is the Caucasus, somewhere between Eastern Europe and the Middle East, filled with peoples and placenames we're seldom called on to think about (at least beyond the Chechens, these days).
A glorious travelogue of this region, from Baku to Georgia to Shusha (Shushan?) to Daghestan to Persia and back again. Most of the places people speak of with longing and wonder you ultimately get to hear about first-hand-except for Europe, of course.
Barely recognizable concepts of honor and patriotism, which tend to glorify killing; yet with WWI raging, I imagine you're supposed to include, how are the "Asiatics" any more bloodthirsty and violence-prone than the Europeans?
This is clearly written for a Western audience, with much of Ali's impressions coming off as ironic or even foolish to the reader. He's kept just Oriental enough to be fascinating, yet European enough (primarily in his treatment of Nino) to be sympathetic.
The lives of aristocrats-how hilariously the main characters engage in nothing whatsoever when times are good! You get the feeling that elites are elites wherever in the world you go-best exemplified by the moment when Ali tells Nino's parents he's been "managing some family estates," a euphemism for doing nothing that he picked up from a British novel.
Why does Iljas Beg round up Ali as a partisan, only to encourage him to flee soon afterward? Perhaps he didn't see the defense of Baku as so lost a cause at first.
Why does Nino go with Nachararyan? Is she really so fearful or dismissive of her homeland, or so seduced by the idea of Europe? It's unclear.
What ethnicity is Ali? You don't even hear the term "Azerbaijan" until the very end. He's just the ambient people. (Later I looked up the country online, and found that most people in modern-day Azerbaijan consider themselves and their language "Azeri." Also, Azeri is a Turkic language, while Armenian is Indo-European-its very own monotypic branch of Indo-European-and Georgian is in the Caucasian family, unless in fact all the members of the Caucasian family [Georgian, Chechen, Ingush, and Avar/Dagestani] are actually each distinct families in their own right. Doesn't this suggest that something very primal happened with language in the Caucasus? Oh, and check out the Georgian and Armenian alphabets-they're beautiful.)
And finally...Ali and Nino are both so damned young! They've had themselves about twelve comings-of-age by the time they're 25. Not that I would wish many of them on anyone.
So: This is a breathless, shamelessly exotic romance that I now adore along with Bella.