Nile Shadows: The Improbable Art of Edward Whittemore

What to make of a book like Nile Shadows, or an author like Edward Whittemore? No matter how determinedly catholic we like to think our literary tastes, there are some works that leave our inner critic feeling uncomfortably at a loss when it first encounters them. "Yes, but is it any good?", it keeps asking with tireless persistence as the rest of us answer that question by happily turning page after page. Like many authors belonging to that large and unfortunate caste, "the unjustly neglected", Whittemore suffers from being an embarrassingly good read. He also suffers from a bigger crime, in that he is almost impossible to pigeonhole. Reviewers' comparisons bounce from Pynchon to Nabokov, Greene to Calvino and Fuentes to Vonnegut, only to hastily assert that he is, of course, very much his own man. Reading Whittemore, I found myself adding my own - a touch of Hesse here, I thought, a dash of Robertson Davies there, yet without what could be termed a debt to either of them. Each new reader will inevitably supply more.

So what is it that makes Nile Shadows, and the rest of Whittemore's works, so infinitely flexible? Are they simply baggy monsters into which one can throw whatever one wants? In a sense they are, and it's not a criticism to say that Whittemore is probably one of the baggiest writers this century - his books represent that most vain of ambitions and the downfall of more than one literary great: a complete explanation of everything. Nothing less than a unified theory of human history is what Whittemore is after, and it's a sign of his mettle that he realizes such an ambition is doomed from the start, yet undertakes it anyway. Nile Shadows is set in an anxious Cairo of 1942, awaiting the arrival at any moment of Rommel and his Panzer divisions from out of the desert. The distant rumble of gun fire and armored vehicles is the rumble of history itself, bearing down on Whittemore's characters as they engage in their desperate machinations to avoid defeat. And yet what do those characters do in the face of such pressure? They talk, is what they do, and they talk and talk and talk. Each conversation leading on to something else, which in turn leads to something else, and suddenly a new character is introduced - a thumbnail sketch surely, a literary prop, no more - but no, suddenly he starts growing in front of our eyes, acquiring a languorous history stretching out over pages and pages while we think, Quick! Do something! The enemy is coming!

At times there is something outright perverse about this compunction to hold forth. When Joe O'Sullivan, the novel's protagonist, encounters the mysterious Ahmad, undoubted possessor of vital information about the man he has been sent to uncover, we get the following:

Well now, so you've come from America, have you?

Yes, murmured Joe his eyes drifting around the room in a trance.

Well now, isn't that a strange coincidence? The world is really very small. It just so happens I once was given a complete edition of the collected letters of George Washington, some thirty-odd volumes in all, and they certainly added up to some fascinating reading.

They did?

Oh very. Let's see now. Did you know, for example, that Washington's false teeth were made from hippopotamus teeth? He also used teeth made from walrus tusks and elephant ivory and even cow teeth, but he always preferred Hippo. He claimed it gave him a superior bite and chew. With Hippo, he said, even peanuts and gumdrops were possible.

Even peanuts and gumdrops? murmured Joe. President Washington?

So he stayed with Hippo whenever he could.

And this sixteen pages into a conversation that has already touched on Ethiopian nationalism, the history of Cairo's sex trade, the Ahmadmobile (Ahmad's failed fish and chip enterprise) and Ahmad's even greater failure as a poet.

The conversation can be serious, too, taking on the form of a grave philosophical discourse as the characters take turns to expound their views of life. When Joe finally comes face to face with his elusive prey, Stern, the chit chat gives way to pure oratory:

Revolution, said Stern. We can't even comprehend what it is, not what it means or what it suggests. We pretend it means total change but it's much more than that, so vastly more complex, and yes, so much simpler too. It's not just the total change from night to day as our earth spins in its revolutions around a minor star. It's also our little star revolving around its own unknowable center and so with all the stars in their billions, and so with the galaxies and the universe itself. Change revolves and truly there is nothing but revolution. All movement is revolution and so is time, and although those laws are impossibly complex and beyond us, their result is simple. For us, very simple.

And yet, this is where Whittemore's great strength comes in: just as we are beginning to accept that this is more a philosophical treatise than a spy story, a pleasant meta-fiction, Whittemore suddenly pulls the strings taut with a dramatic piece of action worthy of Le Carre (more comparisons). When Joe first arrives at the dubious Hotel Babylon, for example, there is this description:

The door burst open under his hand and Joe went flying across the room, hurling his valise at the screen in the window. The screen and the valise disappeared and he dived after them, landing with a roll on the soft earth behind the hotel as a dull thud went off in the room above him. He was on his feet at once, in a crouch, but there was nothing to see. He was standing in a small courtyard strewn with debris. A door behind him led back into the hotel. Another door faced him from the far side of the small courtyard. Joe picked up his valise and crossed to the door in the far wall. He tried the handle and the door opened. Stairs led down to the basement.

This heady mixture of the philosophical and the dramatic runs throughout the book, the one underlying the other, and the result, unlikely though it may be, is a seamless unity rather than an awkward tugging of opposites. Life is talk, after all, lots of it - crude, bawdy, serious, occasionally transcendent - and that's what Whittemore gives us. It's also a world of action and of unthinkable violence - in this century particularly like no other - and Whittemore gives us that, too. Because of the stream of conversations, memories, theories and thoughts that make up so much of the book, it's easy to overlook the significant amount of violence contained within it. The book begins with an act of extreme violence, in fact, a hand grenade casually tossed into a bar that instantly kills one of the main characters, setting off a chain of events linked in almost unimaginable ways to this moment. Then there's Stern, the elusive agent O'Sullivan is sent out to hunt down, who may or may not be giving secrets away to the enemy. Stern, a Christ-like figure who seems to have taken all the woes of humanity upon his shoulders (he even has a stigmata of sorts), is haunted in particular by the memory of his having once slit a dying girl's throat as an act of mercy, a grisly scene that reemerges repeatedly throughout the book, bubbling up from Stern's tormented mind, as fresh for him each time as it is for us.

Something else apart from this heady fusion draws us in to Nile Shadows, though, and that's a certain compulsive quality that, as in all great novels, appears to be beyond the author's control. On the one hand Whittemore is the master story teller, weaving his tale of good and evil with its great cast of characters over its great span of time, while on the other he is also telling a much simpler story, a story about himself, one feels, and telling it again and again. If every fictional character is unavoidably a portrait of its author, then Whittemore seems to have taken this to a pathological extreme. Young or old, good or bad, male or female, they're all flat-out Whittemores on the page, unabashed author substitutes. You don't need to be aware of all the biographical details of the author's life (there are plenty in the prologue and epilogue of this new edition) to realize that something is afoot here. This is a book in which every character, literally or metaphorically or both, is a secret agent, presenting one face to the world and another to themselves. There's Joe and Stern, who between them in their lifetime have disguised themselves as endless apparitions, from gun runners to beggars, antiques dealers to morphine addicts, and more besides. There's Liffey, the jovial chameleon, not coincidentally named after Dublin's famous river, and like that other great Everyman, Bloom, also a Jew. And there's the mysterious Bletchley, his face hideously disfigured by a bullet during the First World War, who's every facial expression is a grotesque inversion of his true feelings. "It's all a matter of man seeking his true home . . ." as Joe says.

Once again, Whittemore escapes what might be a fatal mistake in another author. Far from the funhouse hall of mirrors one might expect from such endless fracturing, the compulsive replication of this same idea only intensifies the book, turning it into a single mirror and magnifying the image. What is the true nature of man? How close can one ever come to it? Is there something worthy and strong enough inside that will outlast our more barbaric impulses? The repetition of these themes by so many voices exerts a hypnotic sense in the end, like listening to an endless choral chant. It might almost be called "the poetry of self-exile", if that didn't strike too pretty a note for a book that for all its abstract bent is so firmly planted on the ground of historical fact and place.

And here we come to the deepest concerns of Whittemore's mind, for historical fact and place are as much his obsession as his loftier flights of imagination, indeed they are inextricably linked to them. The real protagonists of the Quartet are surely the parched and beautiful deserts of the biblical lands, with their oases and ruins, and above all the Holy City of Jerusalem itself. Whittemore is profoundly in love with these, and it's a love that shines forth in all the books. Much of the "talky" nature of the book comes not just from his characters endless speculations and declarations, but from their loving memories of past nights spent idling by the Nile, or the magnificence of the pyramids at dawn, or the smell of a scented garden during some long-ago secret assignation. What you come to realize as you read, unconsciously at first, and then with growing awareness, is that these are not really digressions at all, but rather the very meat of the book. The land speaking to the people, and the people speaking to each other in an endless cycle is the closest definition of what it's all "about", if one needs to pursue its meaning into some final corner. The book, and the whole Quartet, is a monument to digression, to the necessity of the circuitous and the roundabout as the only way to truth. Certainty of vision, unquestioned clarity of purpose, leads only to oppression - as the ruthless and single minded Nazi presence hovering in the background serves to remind us.

What this amounts to, and what makes the critic with his nose for genre and structure so nervous, is that by all accounts this shouldn't be a good book at all, should in fact be a really terrible book, and the Quartet a rambling, self-indulgent mess. It's too clogged up with words to be straight forward action adventure, it's too in love with the power of old-fashioned story telling to be a safe member of any experimental literary camp, it's too bawdy to be a tastefully controlled work of the intellect (what other work about the primacy of Man's soul contains a sizable section on the history and art of prostitution?), and it's combination of travel and digression, action and introspection, while they remind one in flashes (those comparisons again) of writers like Chatwin and Theroux, are too loose, too much under the sway of Whittemore's pack-rat, constantly changing focus of attention. In the end, against all odds, the book works because something binds together its lofty ambitions and disparate parts and makes it, if not a whole, then at least the tantalizing shape of something about to come into being at any moment. That something is the force of Whittemore's integrity of vision.

© Ben Gibberd
New York City, 2002

Ben Gibberd is a freelance writer and editor who lives in New York City. He is currently working on a book about Manhattan's shoreline with the photographer Randy Duchaine.


©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016