Edward Whittemore New York
Photo by Carol Martin
TAPESTRY by Edward Whittemore. New York. Avon. 308
pp $1.95. JERUSALEM POKER by Edward Whittemore.
London. Wildwood House. 405 pp. £5.95.
THIS IS MORE a
story than a review. A story of fantasies. The mythical
and mystical fantasies of Edward Whittemore, and my
own more mundane.amateurish ones.
The story begins
on the eve of last Succot. After several months, in
Sinai and the Negev, I had just returned to Jerusalem
to write a book on the desert. and had wandered into
a bookstore in search of something light to read over
the holiday. Inevitably, the title Sinai Tapestry caught
my eye. But it looked too frivolous even for my needs.
The cover had a bronzed sci-fi figure marching through
an other-world landscape, while the blurb proclaimed: "Prophets ... heretics... or just five guys looking
for a good time?" Only my fascination with Sinai
kept the book in my hands. I flicked through it, and
saw that it was set in both Sinai and Jerusalem. So
I bought it. And read it. And went back to the bookstore
the next day to buy 10 more copies, which I gave to
friends who I knew would love it.
THE NOVEL is indeed
a tapestry - a tapestry of people and events, whose heroes
tower high above life. There in Strongbow, sevenfoot-seven
tall, bronze sundial girded to his loins, an English lord
who is a brilliant botanist and the author of a 33-volume
study of Levantine. sex. There Is Haj Haroun, owner of
an antiquities shop in the Old City, who is as old as
Jerusalem itself and wears a rusty Crusader helmet.There
is Joe O'Sullivan Beare, an Irish patriot from the Aran
Islands who waged a one-man war on the Black and Tans
before escaping to the Holy Land disguised an a nun. And
a.world full of other characters, all of whom intertwine
and collide as the main plot develops: the forgery of
the world's oldest Bible. planted as the Codex Siniaticus
in the Santa Katarina monastery. What is one to make of
a book that casually mentions the Jelebiya tribe of Beduin
at Santa as the descendants of Wallachian serfs? That's
the absolute truth to those who know it. But to those
who don't, it seems like absurd Whittemore fantasy.
How much more fantastic
truth was there In this book that I did not pick up?
Here was a writer who had taken the absurd reality of
this part of the world and woven into it a rich tapestry
of realist absurdity. Spellbound by the fantasy, I ignored
the uneven quality of the writing.
BUT THAT was only
the beginning of the story. Some months later, strolling
past, the same bookstore. I saw a hardback by Edward
Whittemore in the window. It was called Jerusalem Poker. "A novel about a 12 year game for control of. the
Holy City" said the blurb. This time the publisher
played fair. I bought the book. Determined to make it
last, I bravely read no more than 20 pages a day. And
each day, I would tell friends what I had read the day
before. Incredulous, they accused me of making it up.
I wish I had.
kept up the same fantastic level of Sinai Tapestry.
but now the writing was consistently good, and, the
characters, some of them from the previous novel and
some new, were richer and larger still. I met Cairo
Martyr, a coal-black Egyptian with pale blue eyes, who
made. a fortune by selling mummy dust cut with quinine
as an aphrodisiac. I met Monk Szondi scion of the powerful
Jewish Budapest banking house of Szondi, run by a matriarchal
directorate known as The Sarahs. I was entranced. But
when I turned to the book jacket to find out who this
Edward Whittemore was, I found only this: Edward Whittemore,
an American who has lived in the Eastern Mediterranean,
is the author of Sinai Tapestry, the first volume of
his "Jerusalem Quartet". No photograph. Nothing
THIS LACK of information
was immensely tempting. I concluded that Edward Whittemore
must be a pen-name. Obviously, he must have lived here
for some time after 1967, otherwise the logistics of
running from Sinai to Jerusalem would have been very
complicated. Given this aasumption. I thought, chances
were that I knew him. So I considered the problem a
while, and came up with an International expert in military
strategy whose first name is indeed Edward. He could
tell a story brilliantly; his humour was definitely
quirky, if not quite as quirky an that in the novels;
and he had good reason to use a pen-name. I wrote to
my agent in New York asking her to check out my detective
A month later the
reply came: "Re Edward Whittemore, your publisher
is writing to you." My publisher? The plot thickened
like instant pudding, slippery and dense. A fortnight
later, a letter from my publisher arrived. The pudding
fell apart. Edward Whittemore, he wrote, was an old
school-friend of his whom he publishes in. hardcover
in the States.
Now, any first-year
psychology student can tell you that human illusions
die very hard. But my publisher was evidently intent
on improving my contact with reality. He sent me a copy
of Whittemore's first published novel. Quin's Shanghai
Circus I didn't like it, and felt curiously relieved.
My obsession with Whittemore was now reduced to only
semi-obsession. Furthermore, on the back cover of Quin
was a photograph of the author definitely not the Edward
whom I knew. Rather, an impish-looking character, dramatically
bundled up in a cape in what was evidently Central Park.
Edward Whittemore suddenly became real.
So I wrote to him,
care of Holt, Rinehart and Winston. I told him, how
I had come across his books, and what I had done about
them. And I suggested that whenever he was in Jerusalem
or I in New York, we should meet. I also told him what
I thought of Quin. Some fan letter!
Well, he wrote
back. The kind of nice polite letter one would send
in reply to a stranger who writes in such a peculiar
style. But he envied my living in Jerusalern, and asked
mildly for news of the city if I had time. Jumping at
this proffered straw I wrote a letter full of questions.
Simple existential questions like "Who are you?" And since then we've been corresponding, both carefully
disguising ourselves behind words, allowing an occasional
fact to appear like a drop of lead in a field of mercury.
But our correspondence has yielded one most important
fact: during the coming winter and spring, Whittemore
will be working on number three of his quartet. But
he sends no details to unknown correspondents, not even
in the Holy City of Mankind.
SOMETIME soon I
shall meet Edward Whittemore. and find out what lies
behind the impish image and the fantastic reality of
his fiction. Perhaps it will only be a disappointment.
But if so, it won't really matter. For the books remain.
And in them, underlying their quirky absurdity, is the
mystic fantasy of Whittemore's world.
It is there at
the very end of Jerusalem Poker, for example, when O'Sullivan
Beare is showing his Italian child how to skip stones
over water, and telling him of Jerusalem. "Yes,
our holy kingdom," he says. "Made for us if
we'd only believe in it. So watch this hand of mine
fly now. Watch it, Bernini lad. And watch this precious
stone skip for us in the sunlight to the very ends of
go that far, Father."
"Oh yes it
can and much more. Twice that, to tell all. In fact
it will go so far it will circle the world and come
back to us. That's right, that's what it will do. And
if you look hard tomorrow you'll find this very same
precious stone right here on the beach, right here by
the sea where you watch and listen, its long journey
made and a long list of marvels witnessed for sure.
So watch now. Here flies our dream on the sun."
Hazleton from The Jerusalem Post - June 15, 1979