THE NATION/September 10, 1977
History on a Magic Carpet

SINAI TAPESTRY. By Edward Whittemore. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 310 pp.


When early in this novel, the ur-Bible, the source of Western myth, is discovered, its message is that "All prophecies were really histories misplaced by tricks of time…memories in disguise". This can be read as the credo of epic fiction or the despairing cry of intellectuals defeated by history. Edward Whittemore's novel prompts both responses and in a straightforward, linear fashion, manages to render doubtful the very notion that events in time can make up a story. Whittemore is a deceptively lucid stylist. Were his syntax as cluttered as Pynchon's or as conspicuously grand as Nabokov's or Fuentes's, his virtually ignored recent novel might have received the attention it deserves, for his imagination of present and alternative worlds is comparable to theirs, His ambition is to combine history and story, nonfiction and fiction, in a Sinai tapestry so seamless that it achieves the solidity of history itself. And to signal his attempt, if not his achievement, Whittemore's last paragraphs display the synoptic distance of a critic or historian. In the sort of it literary joke that perhaps only an author can appreciate, Whittemore found a sympathetic reader in the writer of the book's jacket who cribbed most of its copy from his last paragraphs, realizing that the novel's comprehension extended even to itself.

In his first novel Quin's Shanghai Circus, Whittemore explored the Orient as he now does the Middle East and both novels' happiest (perhaps only happy) vision is me of a great "unbroken sensual wheel made up of many sexes and ages revolving through time." The permutations and combinations of polymorphous perversity might appear trivial. But Whittemore also presents the ends of more "serious" preoccupations: the Japanese slaughter of Chinese peasants in Quin and the genocide of Armenian by Turks in Sinai are recalled from their historical limbo. Whittemore knows that our century has seen more than one holocaust all committed in the names of politics and history

He enjoys floating his characters on carpets of historical vision (his hero Stern learns as a child to fly balloons in the desert), and then pulling the rug out from under them (Stern dies with his childhood and adult visions literally bombed into oblivion). Every form of historical explanation the novel proffers is challenged, interrogated and discarded The eponymous Sinai tapestry is the original manuscript of the Bible. This is a Holy (not Midrash but) Mishmash, recited by a blind man and recorded by an idiot, in which Jewish, Christian and Moslem myths interweave themselves: Mohammed's buddy is Isaiah, Naomi's companion is Mary, Jesus's mother is Fatima (Later Whittemore turns Jesus into a Wandering Jew and consoles him by moving Calvary into the heart of Jerusalem). So the Bible offers no key at all, moral or hermeneutic to an historical vision patched together from the gossip of shepherds and itinerant tradesmen. But what of all the other ways to read history? The 19th century gave us several. This novel finds all the 19th-century prophets
superannuated adolescents pursuing illusions "caused by a child's false perceptions of order above him" and "an adult's inability to accept the sexual chaos beneath him". As if to invite Marx and Freud off their hobby horses and onto the sensual wheel.

In both his novels, Whittemore dramatises history in the conventional conflict of fathers and sons. But even the order of heredity is sabotaged. One character, Strongbow, comes from a line of English aristocrats in which the parents always die young; another, Wallenstein comes from an Albanian line of paranoids, all of whom are impotent and consequently none of whom are related. Strongbow eventually fathers a son by an Oriental Jewess but by then he has undergone so many changes that he brings his son no specific legacy. Haj Harun a Wandering Jew-Gentile-Moslem, born 3,000 years ago (and mercifully, except for the brief appellation "the fearless religious flasher of antiquity", never a source of whimsy) has no offspring: he has the gift of tongues but nowadays who listens? Zivi, a wealthy Greek with some of Baron Charlus's chutzpah is a spiritual father to a generation of political radicals: his fate is to go mad during the Armenian

In Strongbow and his son Stern, Whittemore creates characters who so enact the virtues and obsessions of their respective centuries that a reconciliation in time seems as hopeless for them as for Poldy Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Strongbow is absurdly larger than life (7 foot 7 inches tall, deaf, sporting a monocle that magnifies his eye to the diameter of 3 inches), but his decorum - and Whittemore's - makes his behaviour and historical pronouncements never less than appropriate. As a student at Cambridge, he masters both fencing and botany: in one of the novel's funniest moments he astonishes the college community by discovering an hitherto unknown species of rose on the river Cam. He shocks polite society by turning down membership in a society of masturbators, but after forty years in the Middle East, composes a forty volume work of sexual lore which is really a 2 million word retelling of a youthful romance. Whittemore knows how much a good Victorian novelist could have made of Strongbow's story, and in how many pages. He tells it all in less than 50.

Strongbow seeks in the Sinai Tapestry a source of debunking, positive proof that the moral foundations of Victorian England rest on sinking sand. With equally Victorian fervor, Wallenstein (the Albanian paranoid) wishes to hide the manuscript, going the Grand Inquisitor one better by denying fallen man any access to the truth. In the 20th century an Irish veteran of Easter 1916 hunts the manuscript as treasure, and eventually delivers it to a tribe of North American Indians. But for Stern, the Bible with its mingling of myths, provides proof that Palestine is the homeland of three great Peoples, Arabs, Jews and Christians, in a record made before they were divided into those names. For Stern, pedantic squabbling over textual unity becomes the stuff of political survival.

Whittemore curves history to enclose his characters When an insulted Strongbow writes Queen Victoria, prophesying that her name will become "synonymous with ugly clutter and hidden evil thoughts, arrogant pomposity and child prostitution" his letter is so in keeping with his character and the language and obsessions of a man of his class, that Whittemore makes telegram seem news, its author a prophetic genius. And Stern's far nobler but equally prophetic vision of a Palestine that win be "a homeland for all the peoples of his heritage" also seems the proper culmination of a series of personal events. In both instances ,the larger insight proceeds from the smaller, personality predicts vision and history confirms what his fiction anticipates so precisely that fact seems Whittemore's fancy.

But he is not playing games with us. Strongbow manages to purchase most of the Middle East (!) but in a final act of healing sells it all, so as to relieve his son "of the burdensome legacy of that Empire he had acquired before Stern was born, an irony immense enough to divide their two centuries forever." It is ironic too that Stern could hope to reconcile the peoples of the Middle East merely by controlling their land, or that the son's altruistic mentality could still bear the traces of the imperialist explorer. But it is the historical distinctions that Whittemore discovers, and with enough wit and compassion to allow the irony to name itself.

Where such irony obtains, no person can have the last word The observer of all these men and their nebulous pursuits is an American woman, Maud, who like the female Buddha of Quin's Shanghai Circus, serves to reduce all masculine obsessions to childish monomanias. In Maud, Stem meets his match but the novel has so little faith in historical generativity that their passion is sexless. Still, Maud's sensuality resonates almost as deeply as Stern's vision, and after his death, this strange granddaughter of an Indian squaw, growing old alone in Cairo, is the only keeper of his faith.

The object of Stern's vision, the Sinai Bible, remains, but even it is rendered meaningless by the political history it might have redeemed. The Sinai tapestry "of lives that had raged through vast secret wars and been struck dumb by equally vast silences, textures harsh and soft in their guise of colours, a cloak of life" is a work of literature, a "chaotic book of life" But in an American Indian village, the book will go unread, and irony beyond anyone's expectations. After celebrating the text with Borgesian intensity, Whittemore demolishes the book and leaves only the life and the chaos, sensuality and gibberish With disarming understatement, Whittemore takes away what he has given. In the novel's most self-reflexive irony, Whittemore offers the best 1977 hope for Middle Eastern peace, relaizes it in an ancient text, and destroys in 1942 its boldest dreamer. History and fiction are seldom so provocatively confused

Anthony Heilbut is the author of The Gospel Sound: Good News & Bad Times (Simon & Schuster), and is currently working on a study of refugee intellectuals, to be published by Viking Press.

Contact: dreaming@jerusalemdreaming.info

©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016