Edward Whittemore (1933-1995) is the author of five highly imaginative novels, written between 1974 and 1987. His death in 1995 tragically cut short his writing career. He is best known for the four novels which constitute the Jerusalem Quartet — Sinai Tapestry (1977), Jerusalem Poker (1978), Nile Shadows (1983), and Jericho Mosaic (1987) — a sustained work of extraordinary breadth and imaginative intensity. An earlier book, Quin’s Shanghai Circus (1974), is also well worth considering as it contains the seeds of what was to come in the Jerusalem sequence and is an excellent novel itself. Out of print for many years, all five books have just been reissued by Old Earth Books.
Although they contain fantastic themes and elements, these novels don’t fit into any convenient genre. They are not science fiction, fantasy, historical, or religious fiction, though they contain elements of all these. What distinguishes the books is not commonality of style, but rather originality of expression. Their individuality and imaginative invention puts them alongside the works of such writers as Angela Carter, Mervyn Peake, Vladimir Nabokov, and Mikhail Bulgakov.
Edward Whittemore had an interesting and unusual life. He graduated from Yale in 1955 with a degree in history, and his interest in that discipline is reflected in the historical flavor of the books themselves. Historical episodes play an important part in all the novels, and the characters, set against this historical background, possess remarkable biographies in their own right. As a young man, he was recruited into the CIA. From 1958 to 1967, he served as an agent for that organization, traveling widely both in East Asia and the Middle East. Undoubtedly, these experiences greatly influenced his writing and fed his imagination with exotica unknown to most Westerners; all his novels involve espionage activities of one kind or another.
The espionage that plays a central role in all of the novels is often carried out in ridiculous and eccentric ways: In Sinai Tapestry, a giant stone scarab is used to transport arms. In Jerusalem Poker, Nubar Wallenstein’s paranoiac spy network is of hilarious and outrageous proportions. In Nile Shadows, allied intelligence operations have the peculiar names Waterboys and Monks. Is Whittemore lampooning his past experiences as an agent, mocking the activities of the CIA and similar organizations? The organization run by master agent Yossi/Halim in Jericho Mosaic is like an insider’s view of the workings of Mossad; in fact Halim’s life and activities are closely modeled on those of Eli Cohen, the famous Israeli spy. Was Whittemore a party to secret information owing to his past spook activities? Or was he, as his friends speculated, still an active agent?
Quin’s Shanghai Circus was Whittemore’s first published book. It received favorable reviews from the literary press at the time: Jerome Charyn in The New York Times Book Review described it as “a profoundly nutty book full of mysteries, truths, untruths, idiot savants, necrophiliacs, magicians, dwarfs, circus masters, secret agents… a marvelous recasting of history in our century”. Although the book can be described as a sort of historical spy novel, the way the story is told, the eccentricity of the characters and how they inhabit the location of the novel, places it outside the mainstream of literature. It has an original voice and is bright with unusual imaginings. It captures the essence of the Orient while displaying an esoteric grasp of its history, and an understanding of its main philosophical concepts and cultural practices.
The novel opens in the 1960s with the arrival in New York of a giant expatriate American named Geraty. In his luggage are two curious items — an ancient ring of Nestorian origin and the largest collection of Asian pornography ever to land on American shores. He is dressed eccentrically:
The unraveled tops of three or four sweaters showed at his neck, which was swathed in a piece of red flannel tied with string. He wore torn military boots, the type issued to American soldiers during the Second World War, and a black bowler hat that might have belonged to a circus performer in the 1920s. Over everything was a military greatcoat, ancient and spotted and patched, of no recognizable era or campaign.
Geraty’s baggage and his dress are part of the overall plot of the novel. Whittemore structures his novels like Chinese puzzle boxes that gradually reveal interlocking mysteries. Here, the mysteries are the characters, and the actions and memories of the main protagonists propel the novel forward. A “stories within stories” structure, reminiscent of Jan Potocki’s extraordinary The Saragossa Manuscript, enriches the reading experience.
We see Geraty as an impostor, a clown, a madman. He has traveled back and forth across the whole Far East, journeys he repeats in his head in moments of stress and from the depths of his drunken soul; he frequently cries out “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Geraty has come to America to find two people, young Quin and the simpleton, Big Gobi, and also to sell the collection of pornography that is confiscated by Customs upon his arrival. His mission to the young men is mysterious and somehow relates to their origins in the East.
Quin accompanies Big Gobi to Japan at Geraty’s request and in order to seek out his own origins. Quin is presented as a seeker of truth, and is the only character not haunted by his memories. It’s what he doesn’t know about his past, and about his parents, that drives him. He is the dispassionate observer, the questioner, and the force that reveals the secrets of the main protagonists, linking them all to events during and after World War II in Japan and China.
Big Gobi, on the other hand, is tormented by his early experiences in an orphanage, by an early work experience and by a fearful secret. He desperately wants to be loved and has a terrible innocence similar to that of Homer Simpson in Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. He is also driven by almost uncontrollably violent impulses. Not really essential to the plot, Big Gobi is a problematic character, employed as a vehicle for several extravagant scenes, including the funeral at the end of the novel, presaged throughout as the most magnificent since the death of the legendary Kublai Khan, with whom Big Gobi is associated.
Quin and Big Gobi travel to Japan by freighter. In passing, they meet the student Hato, who plays a small part in later events. The character of Hato typifies the numerous coincidences and intertwined relationships with which Whittemore peppers his novels.
Quin encounters the other main characters during his search for information. Among them is Father Lamereaux, a sad, gentle man, master of Noh drama, supposed pederast, and a mastermind behind a daring espionage ring, code-named Gobi, active during the Second World War, which activities ultimately saved Moscow from invasion by the Nazis and shortened the war in China. His couriers all suffer from a mysterious ailment comically known as “Lam ah rows Lumbago.”
Whittemore uses recurring motifs to depict his characters. The characters’ obsessions and long-term memories define them and give them depth. Father Lamereaux is haunted by events which occurred in the 1920s. Quin finds him living a solitary existence, watched over by Miya, his housekeeper. In the outside world he is believed to be dead, having not been seen in public since the war. The reader is eventually fully apprised of Father Lamereaux’s secrets, through both his own admissions and information conveyed by other characters. We glimpse his soul when Whittemore employs the special motifs of his character — a wistful refrain of cats, gardens, the Legion of Mary, the flowers of Tokyo, the temples of Kamakura, all of which represent moments of poignancy and fleeting happiness in his past.
Quin’s quest for the truth leads him to Mama, a former prostitute who had slept with 10,000 men before her twenty-fifth birthday. Now the madam of a high class brothel and nightclub, she is the most powerful woman in Japan and the incarnation of the Kannon Buddha. Quin also meets Kikuchi Lotmann, the world’s third-most-powerful-gangster. Through these encounters the reader learns more about other important protagonists who all have a part in the puzzle that is central to the novel’s endgame — the twin brothers Kikuchi (who both figure in Jerusalem Poker) and the traveler extraordinaire, linguist, and collector of pornography Adzard, each one with an fascinating story to tell. The novel touches upon the history of Japan and China from the thirteenth century to the post-World War II years and gives a skewed perspective of several historical events, such as the Rape of Nanking in 1937 (described in gruesome detail), the story of the last Manchu Emperor and his puppet kingdom of Manchukuo, and even a whimsical explanation of the origins of Mao’s Long March.
Extraordinary relationships are brought to light: The connection between Quin, Big Gobi, and Kikuchi Lotmann is finally revealed, and Quin discovers how his parents’ lives intersected those of the other protagonists and how they came to die.
And what of the circus for which the book is named? Generally a circus can be defined as a traveling show of performers, a lively scene, or an arena for sports with a space for action surrounded by seating for observers. Quin’s Shanghai Circus is all of the above, both metaphorically and literally. The novel is a bright cavalcade of colorful characters, and the entertainment it provids is as lively and interesting as a night at the circus. However, the real Shanghai circus is dark and bleak, and as it plays out its last scene in a warehouse, it symbolizes the tortured mind of the ringmaster.
Quin’s Shanghai Circus is by turns raucous, tender, comic, violent and wise. Despite the darkness and violence of some scenes, Whittemore clearly feels tenderness and compassion towards his characters — even the most depraved are given a human side. Geraty, for example, wicked old sinner that he is, finds redemption. The writer’s good humor pervades all the novels. Even in the bleakest or most farcical moments, a keen intelligence, teeming with invention, can be perceived.
The Jerusalem Quartet, though a far more ambitious work, has a worthy precursor in Quin’s Shanghai Circus, and the writing and storytelling is of a very high caliber. Story elements of Quin’s Shanghai Circus are revisited in the larger work. For instance, Adzard’s study of oriental pornography is echoed in the Jerusalem sequence by Strongbow’s study of Levantine sex. The harrowing description of the massacre of Smyrna in Sinai Tapestry recalls the presentation of the rape of Nanking. Johann Luigi Szondi’s walking tour of the Levant and Strongbow’s long pilgrimage in the desert are variants of Adzard’s wanderings along the old silk routes of Asia.
Now we come to Whittemore’s masterwork — a wildly imaginative sequence of books that encompasses the history of Eastern Europe and the Middle East from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1980s, with occasional forays into the more distant past. Jerusalem is the focal geographical location for the entire sequence. Jerusalem, the once and future city, “everyone’s holy city,” the quintessential locale for dreams.
The first book in the quartet, Sinai Tapestry (1977), sets the scene, introduces the main characters, and forms the background for the rest of the quartet. The events and characters introduced in Sinai Tapestry affect the other books in the sequence, sometimes as legendary personages such as Strongbow and Skanderbeg Wallenstein, others like Joe O’Sullivan Beare and Stern as part of the ongoing action. Various objects reappear throughout the quartet, and are used as recurring motifs. A magnifying glass carried by Strongbow in his travels across the Levant reappears later in Menelik Ziwar’s possession. Strongbow’s portable bronze sundial is a chiming time piece in the background of the great Jerusalem poker game. The giant scarab used by Joe to transport arms was also used by Strongbow as a seat during the period when he was writing his massive study of Levantine sex and again used by Menelik Ziwar to smuggle the 33 volumes of the work into Egypt. These objects resonate with a profound, haunting significance, giving an impression of the continuance of time, warped and occurring in several centuries at once.
The characters are larger than life, though not caricatures. Their lives are extraordinary, almost mythic, often tragic. For each of them, Jerusalem represents a dream for the future, yet they are haunted by its past.
Sinai Tapestry begins with the story of Plantagenet Strongbow, born into an earldom in nineteenth-century England. Whittemore lampoons the lifestyle of the English landed gentry with a description of Strongbow’s family traditions, which are eccentric to the point of extreme silliness. Strongbow, however, goes against the grain and becomes a giant, in stature as well as in esoteric scholarship. His eccentricities are considerably more offensive to conventional Victorian England than those of his forebears, and there is nothing silly about them. They are awesome, enormously accomplished, and contribute to his mythic status. He is a master swordsman, the greatest botanist and explorer of his age. His masterwork is the thirty-three volume study of Levantine sex which, though banned upon publication, continues to influence the lives of other characters throughout the four books. The Sarahs in Jerusalem Poker have a copy of it and read it for light relief at the end of a hard day running the banking business of the House of Szondi.
The other book that has enormous importance in the novels (especially the first two) is the original Bible, found by Skanderbeg Wallenstein in St.Catherine’s monastery, a find that launches Wallenstein into the gargantuan task of rewriting it, creating a master forgery that eventually becomes the possession of Czar Alexander of Russia. The original Bible is a scandalous document purportedly written by an imbecile from stories told by a blind man, a catalogue of wonders which “denied every religious truth ever held by anyone”.
Strongbow’s exploits provide a constant thread in the first three books of the quartet, and various generations of the Wallenstein family influence the course of events and interweave with the lives of several of the main characters. Strongbow’s son Stern unites the entire sequence, as his dream of a homeland for Muslims, Christians, and Jews draws him into the ambit of the other characters and affects their lives in turn. To Haj Haran, he is a manifestation of God; to Joe O’Sullivan Beare he is a friend and also the reminder of a tragic September day spent in Smyrna; to Maud he is a savior who assuages her despair when Sivi dies and who remains a staunch companion and dear friend till the day of his death. Stern himself asks little of anyone, and the sadness and desperation of his physical existence never once dulls his bright idealism nor deflects him from pursuing his hopeless cause even though “his cause had been reduced to a question of smuggling guns and nothing more”. The mystery of Stern’s life and death provides the focus of the third novel, Nile Shadows, when the reader finally learns of all his disguises and his place in thirty years of events in the Middle East.
Sinai Tapestry also introduces Joe O’Sullivan Beare, on the run from the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland, fleeing to the Holy Land in the guise of a nun of the Poor Clares. There he is befriended by a mysterious character known as the baking priest who equips him with the uniform of an officer of the 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade and finds him accommodation in the Home for Crimean War Heroes. Joe in turn befriends Haj Harun, a gentle dealer in antiquities, apparently 3000 years old who is probably the most endearing of all the characters. To Haj Haran, time is meaningless: he has existed, exists, and will exist through all time in his beloved city. In his past life, he has been a stone carver specializing in winged lions for the Assyrians, a landscape gardener under the Babylonians, a tentmaker under the Persians, an all-night grocer when the Greeks were in power, and a waiter during the Roman occupation. In the nineteenth century, he knew both Strongbow and Skanderbeg Wallenstein. He recalls Strongbow writing his study of Levantine sex one afternoon in the last century, and he sells Wallenstein the parchment for his forgery of the original Bible and is the sole witness to the Bible’s hiding place.
Maud’s story begins in America in the late nineteenth century and moves on to Albania, where she marries Catherine Wallenstein, the mad and depraved son of Skanderbeg Wallenstein. She leaves behind a son, Nubar, when she flees from Catherine’s murderous dementia. Her life crosses that of Sivi, the charming and kind bon vivant of Smyrna, and eventually she comes to Jerusalem, where she falls in love with Joe. Maud’s story continues through the first three volumes of the quartet, and her life intersects those of several of the other characters — Stern and Munk Szondi, as well as Joe and Sivi.
As in Quin’s Shanghai Circus, complex relationships and coincidences pepper the ongoing narrative. The following from Sinai Tapestry seems curiously appropriate to Whittemore’s storytelling style:
Occasionally he chanted about mighty wars and migrations and who begat whom, and although he sometimes presented the solemn side of life he also included the sensuous and sacrificing, all the while enlivening his chants with anecdotes and sayings and reports, curious inventions, every manner of adventure and experience that might come to mind.
Sinai Tapestry is a marvelous story in the true sense of the word “marvelous,” full of astonishing and extremely improbable happenings. Yet so engaging are the characters, so beguiling are the scenes conjured up by the skill of Whittemore’s writing, and so exotic are the locations, that the reader willingly suspends disbelief. Central to it all is Jerusalem, the city on the hill, which is described in detail by one obviously familiar with its byways and history. This is not surprising, as Whittemore wrote most of the quartet while living in the city itself.
Jerusalem Poker is the second novel of the sequence and several new characters make an appearance, most notably Cairo Martyr and Munk Szondi, who, along with Joe O’Sullivan Beare, run the great Jerusalem poker game, a game begun on a rainy night in 1921 and ending 12 years later. The three players represent the main religious factions within the old city — Muslim, Jew, and Christian.
The stakes in the game are no less than control of the city of Jerusalem. The book was first published in 1978 and is probably the most fantastically imagined of the entire quartet. As in the previous novels, each character has a remarkable history, and once again consists of “stories within stories,” creating a series of intricate relationships that hark back to Sinai Tapestry and even Quin’s Shanghai Circus. Each character has a signature motif: Cairo carries an albino monkey on his shoulder and smokes mummy dust; Munk eats mounds of garlic and carries a remarkable watch that can tell three different times; Joe wears the uniform of an officer from the Crimean War and consumes potatoes, washed down with poteen swigged from an antique bottle from Crusader times.
The action of Jerusalem Poker overlays that of Sinai Tapestry and expands on events touched upon in the earlier book. Central to Cairo Martyr’s story is that of Menelik Ziwar, the greatest Egyptologist of the nineteenth century, longtime friend to Strongbow with whom he has enjoyed a forty year conversation. More of Menelik’s story is divulged in Nile Shadows. Also a part of Cairo’s background is the remarkable Johann Luigi Szondi, a “highly gifted linguist with a passion for details,” who, during the course of a walking tour of the Levant in the early nineteenth century, passed some time with Cairo’s maternal great grandmother. Curiously enough he is also the common ancestor of Skanderbeg Wallenstein (father), Nubar Wallenstein (great grandfather), and Munk Szondi (great grandfather).
Munk’s background is every bit as bizarre as Cairo’s, what with the exploits of Johann Luigi Szondi and the establishment of the banking empire of the Sarahs. Munk’s path also crosses those of two characters from Quin’s Shanghai Circus, the twin Kikuchi brothers, General Kikuchi and his older twin Rabbi Lotmann (the former Baron Kikuchi, who converted to Judaism and became a fervent Zionist).
The great Jerusalem poker game is presented as a running commentary throughout the novel — and is more than just a game of cards. Mysterious and powerful forces are at work, from the sundial chimes striking the time in anachronous strokes, to the game play itself. The three main players — Joe, Cairo, and Munk — maintain a status quo within the game, overall neither winning or losing; other players come and go, losing or winning according to their just desserts. A moral principle is involved, and losers are required to make appropriate amends when condemned by the fall of the cards.
Realizing that the ultimate stake is control of Jerusalem, Nubar Wallenstein establishes an extensive spy network, called the UIA (Uranist Intelligence Agency) to try to take over the game. He sees the city as his by right — the legacy of his grandfather’s discovery of the original Bible. The Bible represents for Nubar the philosopher’s stone, long sought in his study of the works of Paracelsus. His spies are thwarted and their reports back to Nubar make entertaining reading; for example, the story of the lost Greek, where Whittemore appears to be having a sly dig at the expense of classical literature.
Nubar is the clownish villain of the novel; his physical appearance, that of a stereotypical fascist, is described thus:
By the end of the Great War, Nubar had grown into a small adolescent with an unusually large head, a narrow sunken chest and a prominent potbelly. His face was small and round and pinched, and his tiny weak eyes were very close together. He wore round glasses, wire framed in gold, that seemed to push his eyes even closer together. Two of his front teeth were gold.
He had a small nose and mouth and lips so thin he couldn’t make them whistle. He cultivated a short straight moustache and combed his straight black hair low over his forehead to hide his baldness, his hairline having begun to recede by the time he was fifteen.
Nubar also suffers from other afflictions — paranoia and a left eyelid that droops when he is excited; both are inherited from the first Wallenstein and subsequently visited upon all Wallenstein males. But as all Wallenstein heirs prior to Skanderbeg Wallenstein are unrelated to their fathers, the inherited affliction is inexplicable:
The question had never been answered, and with good reason. Because to do so would have been to admit a-causal relationships in the Balkans, influences removed from logic which would have been highly confusing in their disorderly ramifications, and had always been thoughtfully ignored as nonexistent.
Whittemore often remarks in passing on the history or politics of the region involved in the action of the novels, remarks which, if investigated, prove to be accurate. His view of politics and history is undeniably quirky, forcing the reader to view the episodes in a new light.
Nubar Wallenstein calls one of his spies’ reports “a meaningless fantasy, a web of buffoonish tales having nothing to do with reality,” and one cannot escape the idea that Whittemore is commenting on his own novel. Be that as it may, it is a hugely entertaining piece of nonsense, a terrific read, a ripping yarn involving engaging characters doing amazing things in far-flung places and, again, Jerusalem embodies the dreams of all those caught in its spell.
In a Publishers Weekly review, Nile Shadows was described as “one of the most complex and ambitious espionage novels ever written”. Once again the desert, a magical ancient city, and eccentric characters inform the action of the novel.
Nile Shadows opens where Sinai Tapestry ended, and revists the closing scene of that novel, revealing hidden significance in the death of Stern. Joe O’Sullivan Beare is recruited by Allied Intelligence to investigate the mystery of Stern’s life. It quickly becomes clear that no one is quite sure which side Stern was working on.
There are two Allied Intelligence operations in Egypt: the Waterboys, who operate out of a drab building housing the Third Circle of the Irrigation Works, and the Monastery, who have their headquarters out in the desert in an ancient fortress building said to have once accommodated St. Anthony, the fourth-century hermit and founder of monasticism. This reference to St. Anthony evokes Sinai Tapestry — St. Anthony was Skanderbeg Wallenstein’s favorite saint. As another reminder of that previous book, Whatley, the chief of Monastery operations, shares Skanderbeg Wallenstein’s fondness for Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
Both intelligence agencies are decidedly odd, the one typified by British eccentricity and the other quite sinister. The chiefs of these agencies are missing parts of themselves: The Colonel at the Waterboys is missing a leg; Whatley is missing an arm; and Bletchley lacks an eye. As Bletchley comments to Joe, “It is odd when you think of it, but all the Monks do seem to missing a part or a limb. Crippled that’s it,” to which Joe’s response is “True? Do you suppose that means there’s some sort of secret law that you have to be a cripple to be in intelligence?” Bletchley, who has an amusing tendency to misinterpret the words of others, responds, “To be intelligent you mean? Well, you may be right. I never thought of it that way before.”
Bletchley is an intriguing and likeable character, the head of Intelligence operations for the mysterious Monastery, his face a grotesque mask because of an accident involving a spyglass. Joe quickly learns to interpret the expressions that cross his ravaged face, a horrifying grimace signifying a smile. Bletchley resurfaces in Jericho Mosaic as Bell, the one-eyed hermit and holy man of Jericho.
Joe is assigned the code identity of A. O. Gulbenkian, an itinerant Armenian dealer in Coptic artifacts, an identity previously used by his brother Columbkille O’Sullivan; his brother is affectionately remembered in the army as “Our Colly of Champagne,” for heroic acts performed during the First World War. Joe arrives in Egypt and is met by Liffey, a sad clown, and is driven to his accommodation at the Hotel Babylon in an old delivery van painted on the side with the words “AHMADS Greasy Fish & Levantine Chips.” In the Hotel Babylon, a former brothel, Joe starts to unravel the strands of Stern’s life. Liffey advises “Your journey now involves time, my child, not space. Not rivers and mountains and deserts to be crossed, but memories to be explored.” Joe begins his journey into the past by making the acquaintance of Ahmad, the silent Egyptian counterman at the Hotel Babylon who spends his days reading thirty-year-old newspapers, “open as always at the society page.” Ahmad’s recollections take him thirty years into the past, and even further, revealing a network of relationships through two generations.
In Ahmad’s youth, he, Stern, and David Cohen were boon companions, lively members of Cairo’s cafe society, a friendship that lasted until one of them died and the other was betrayed through a breakdown in understanding. This betrayal has something to do with what is continually referred to through the novel as Stern’s Polish Story. The heart of the mystery is a daring escape Stern made from a Damascus prison in 1939. It is inexplicable because Stern was due to be released within twenty-four hours. A few weeks later Hitler invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War, thus posing the question of which side was Stern working.
Joe’s investigations draw him deeper and deeper into the past. The influence of Strongbow extends to this novel as well, through the long friendship he enjoyed with Menelik Ziwar. Ziwar’s magnifying glass also rates a mention. It was fashioned by Cohen’s great-grandfather, who was a crony of both Menelik and Strongbow, forming another triumvirate representing the three main faiths of the Middle East — an echo of that other threesome of Joe, Cairo, and Munk during their twelve-year relationship running the great Jerusalem Poker game. Fathers and sons re-form connections across the generations with Ahmad’s father also being part of Menelik Ziwar’s circle through their common occupation as dragomen back in the nineteenth century. Joe’s visit to the Cohens provides him with a further clue to the mystery of Stern’s Polish Journey, which is later solved by the sisters Big Belle and Little Alice. It is a dangerous secret which proves lethal to others, and it threatens Joe’s life as well.
The mystery of Stern’s life is finally unraveled, and Joe comes to realize how Stern, being the person he is, has had an impact on everyone who knew him, and how his life was not as meaningless as he, Stern, has imagined. As the Waterboy major remarks to his colonel, “It’s almost as if to them, to Joe and Liffey and the other people Joe spoke of… almost as if Stern’s life is a kind of tale of all our hopes and failures. Living and trying as he did, failing and dying as he did. Ideals that may lead to and yet still contain within them… Oh I don’t know what.” Joe’s final task is to convince Stern of this before he dies.
Nile Shadows, though more somber than the two previous novels, has its bizarre moments. When Joe is being transported by Bletchley through the desert to the Monastery, they pass through a dreamlike landscape where old engines of war lie discarded on the wayside, and a battery of British howitzers are bombarding the empty desert, facing the wrong way. Joe remarks on this to Bletchley, whose response is “The wrong way? How can there be a right way to slaughter people? And anyway, mirages are common enough in the desert.”
This novel and Jericho Mosaic are ostensibly espionage novels, but it’s almost as if they are also metaphors for life, the secret agents a code for our inner selves. Joe comments to Stern, “It has to do with the tiny glimpses we’re given of people, and the fact that everyone seems to be a secret agent in life in a way. With their own private betrayals and their own private loyalties that we don’t know anything about, and their own secret code copied down from a private onetime pad, which we both know is all but unbreakable.”
It is interesting to note, that towards the end of the novel, Whittemore has Maud quote a passage from an ancient Chinese account of caravans in the Gobi desert. Whittemore first quoted this passage in Quin’s Shanghai Circus, so it must have meant a great deal to him. It is indeed a remarkable piece of prose. It speaks of secret agents, sandstorms, vanishing caravans in the trackless desert, among other things.
The Quartet culminates in Jericho Mosaic (1987). The story focuses on events which occurred during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s in the Middle East, and is loosely based on the exploits of the master Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who operated out of Syria during the 1960s. None of the original characters are in this novel, but two survive from Nile Shadows — Bletchley, now called Bell, and David Cohen’s sister Anna. As usual, there are new characters to fill the absence of those the reader has come to know and love, and they all have interesting histories.
Chief among the new characters are the master Israeli spy Yossi/Halim and his operator Tajar. The story of how the Runner operation is set up is a fascinating look at the workings of an intelligence unit — in this case Mossad — and what it takes to make a master spy, the objective being “an agent who was to penetrate Arab culture so deeply he would never come back.” Tajar’s life almost spans the century and provides a link with the previous novels in the quartet: In his youth, he had heard tales of the great Jerusalem poker game and the finding of the original Bible. He was connected to the Monastery in the Second World War, learned the tricks of the trade from Bletchley/Bell, and is also a cripple, another link to the spymasters of Nile Shadows.
The transformation of Yossi into Halim, the master undercover agent, is the main preoccupation of the novel. Whittemore obviously knew first-hand what is described in the novel as “the controlled schizophrenia of a deep-cover agent.” Unlike Eli Cohen, who was active for only five years, Halim’s double life continues for over twenty.
The action of the novel shifts among three main locations: Jerusalem, Jericho, and Damascus. In Jerusalem Whittemore follows the lives of Tajar, “the grand rabbi of espionage,” Anna and her son Assaf (who is also Yossi’s son), and through their eyes the reader witnesses the Six Day War of June 1967, a dramatic account of the Israeli victory over the united Arab armies. In Jericho, three wise men keep watch over the centuries in the oldest inhabited town in the world: Bell the white-robed, one-eyed hermit and former WWII Intelligence agent; Abu Musa, who once rode with Lawrence of Arabia; and Moses, a giant black eunuch, formerly the retainer of an elderly Ethiopian princess “who had come to the Holy Land to live out her last days in pious Christian seclusion.” These three meet on Bell’s porch on regular basis, Abu Musa and Moses to play shesh-besh (an Arabic form of backgammon) and idly explore the Universe, or so it seems to Bell. Halim operates out of Damascus, and the action focuses on his activities as the Runner and his private life in that other ancient city. The lives of all the protagonists overlap and become entwined as is usual in a Whittemore novel. Halim’s intense life in Damascus is juxtaposed with the peace of Bell’s porch in Jericho.
The locations are described in loving detail: the streets of Jerusalem; the quiet timelessness of the oasis that is Jericho, redolent with orange trees and eternal summer; the wilderness of Judea where Abu Musa’s nephew Yousef lives in a solitary, self-imposed exile; the ancient streets of Damascus. In Thomas Wallace’s memoir of Edward Whittemore, he describes the compound where the author lived. Whittemore has used the location for Anna’s apartment in Ethiopia Street and he brings the street to life.
Whittemore provides a short history of the region, describing the origins of the PLO and their subsequent involvement with the KGB, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s and ’80s. The complicated politics of the Middle East form part of the ongoing drama of the Runner’s activities. Jericho Mosaic is an amazingly relevant novel for our times, with the never-ending war as far from peace as ever. This book goes some way to explaining the origins and motivations of the ongoing conflict. It is a sort of history primer for the region. Whittemore never in any way takes sides or shows any partisanship with either party. His view is holistic; his characters believe there is a way for Muslims, Christians, and Jews to live in harmony. Over and over again, he has a triumvirate representing the three main religious groups. The message is clear: No matter how impossible the idea of a common homeland for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, among individuals peace is possible and happens all the time.
Jericho Mosaic, like Nile Shadows, presents a dark vision of the Middle East and is less playful than the earlier novels. However, larger-than-life characters and fantastical, dreamlike sequences still enrich the storyline.
And so ends the ambitious Jerusalem Quartet, a veritable catalogue of wonders, a fantastic sequence of tales from a modern-day Scheherazade where a giant English explorer comes to secretly own the Ottoman Empire, where a pious Albanian monk forges the Bible, where an Irish rebel becomes a Poor Clare nun on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where a survivor of the 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade whiles away the years as a dancing priest baking bread in Jerusalem, where a Japanese Buddhist converts to Judaism and becomes a committed Zionist, where an obscure dealer in antiquities has lived for 3,000 years, where saints and sinners, secret agents, Egyptologists, dragomen, mummy-dust dealers, oil millionaires, and gun runners commingle in what Whittemore terms “the constantly shifting images of a tapestry we call history.”
Edward Whittemore’s writing has been compared to such diverse writers as Thomas Pynchon, Tom Robbins, Carlos Fuentes, and Vladimir Nabokov. His style is closest to that of Jan Potocki as, like that author, every story is multi-layered and connects with other stories. Whittemore’s favorite authors were apparently John Le Carre and Graham Greene (according to Tom Wallace), and it is obvious that espionage continued to interest him after his career in the CIA.
He was a great humanist, and all the novels contain deep and meaningful conversations on the meaning of life, on how everything is interrelated. As Joe remarks in Nile Shadows,
all lives are secret tapestries that swirl and sweep through years with souls and strivings as the colors, the threads. And there may be little knots of tangled meaning everywhere beneath the surface, tying the colors and threads together, but the little knots aren’t important finally, only the sweep itself, the tapestry as a whole.
Whittemore continually returns to the universal themes of love and loss, the possibility of hope in desperate times, the meaninglessness of war, the vagaries of time, the way people, places, and objects resonate in our minds and feed our dreams.
Publishers Weekly described Edward Whittemore as “America’s best unknown novelist.” I hope that the reissue of his novels will finally bring him the acclaim that is rightfully his. He is far too good to be overlooked, and it is tragic that his genius and his wonderfully wise novels have been ignored for so long.
As I wrote this essay, the war in Palestine had escalated and ancient sites in the Holy Land were being bombed. There appears to be no solution to the Palestinian question other than outright war. The Jerusalem Quartet, more than ever, is literature for our times. I leave you with this quote from Nile Shadows as a pithy message for the post-September 11 world.
…unfortunately barbarians do seem to serve a purpose in history, for when we have them as enemies at our gates we no longer have to judge ourselves. For a brief moment, anyway, our innate savagery is safely out there beyond the city walls and we can rejoice in our self-righteousness, and be smug in our petty civic virtues.
Anne Sydenham lives in Australia and maintains Jerusalem Dreaming, the best and most comprehensive Edward Whittemore resource site on the web.
This essay was first published in the New York Review of Science Fiction, Issue 173, Vol. 15 No. 5, January 2003.
Copyright © 2003 by Anne Sydenham.