Paul Theroux mentions this novel in his book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star as the great Azerbaijani novel. Written in 1937, it is set just before and during the first world war, when Azerbaijan was under the control of czarist Russia. The two protagonists are Ali Shirvanshir and Nino Kipriani, both from wealthy and powerful families living in Baku, an oil boom town on the shores of the Caspian sea. Ali is a Muslim with family connections in Persia; Nino is a Georgian Christian, whose extended family is based in Tbilisi. The novel is basically a love-story, but takes pains to describe the cultural and religious world of Azerbaijan at that time.
It is not known for sure who wrote this novel. ‘Kurban Said’ is a pseudonym, possibly of an author named Lev Nussimbaum who converted to Islam in the 1920s. The novel was written originally in German. No matter the origins: this is a compassionate and open-minded novel. It seeks to explicate the religious and cultural bigotries that caused so much conflict and destruction, then and now. This is a difficult mission, because the author has first to show you just how deep and extensive the bigotry is, and then get you to understand how a reasonable person raised in that culture could accept and embrace that bigotry. The author does a reasonable job of this.
I wouldn’t classify this as a great novel in any sense, but it’s certainly an interesting story, and a fascinating look at a region that has long been a colonialist battleground, as well as the boundary between Europe and Asia, Islam and Christianity.