Davis is the author of "Techgnosis: Myth,
Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information".
The article was published in the Village Voice Literary
Supplement, February 2000.
Some mornings I stop and talk with Maurice, the Christian
Palestinian guy who runs the
local corner store. As a young man, Maurice was a rabble-rousing
student living in the West Bank, but now he is a businessman
worried about keeping the flowers fresh. One day I pointed
to a front-page photo of Kosovar refugees, and he blurted
out: "That's what happened to my family!" Before Maurice was born, he told me, his family was
forced at gunpoint from their land by Israeli soldiers.
As they marched east across the earth with only a few
belongings, his mother became so dehydrated she was
forced to drink her daughter's urine. With that one
absurd and humiliating detail, Maurice's story lent
a visceral, timeless depth to the suffering of refugees,
Kosovar or otherwise, charging my emotions in a way
that CNN's propaganda could never match. The experience
taught me that once you've lost faith in the simulated
objectivity of the Official Story, history finds other
ways to draw you into its imaginative sweep.
is utterly enchanted by the mystery of that sweep, a
mystery whose archetypal patterns and strange surface
designs are woven into the rich, goofy, and esoteric
texture of his remarkable Jerusalem Quartet. The cult
novels, which are linked loosely enough to be read separately
but which conceal a dense, almost paranoiac web of interconnections,
tell the nested tales of generations of explorers, spies,
monks, junkies, and smugglers gallivanting about the
Middle East from the 19th century until the 1980s. As
heady as Pynchon, as droll as Vonnegut, and as entertaining
as Lawrence of Arabia or Tom Robbins on a great day,
the Jerusalem Quartet nonetheless fell through the cracks
that separate literature, mainstream fiction, and fantasy.
Though Whittemore finished up the series barely over
a decade ago, the four novels-Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem
Poker, Nile Shadows, and Jericho Mosaic-are now tough
to scrounge up and expensive when you do.
Orientalist fantasy hangs heavy over the Quartet, yet
Whittemore does not frame his fabulations as secret
peeks into the exotic and authentic Other. Instead he
conjures up a polyglot comedy that simultaneously mocks
imperialist, nationalist, and mystified images of the
Middle East. Sinai Tapestry, for example, features a
Victorian explorer named Plantagenet Strongbow, a seven-foot-tall
drop-out aristocrat who discovers a comet, masters the
intricacies of the Middle East, writes a 33-volume study
of Levantine sex, and winds up a mystic Sufi healer
with a Yemenite wife.
Whittemore's meditations on history are serious-the
most central figure in the series is Strongbow's son
Stern, an ethnically mixed gunrunner, morphine addict,
and spy who spends the early decades of the 20th century
pursuing his hopeless dream of a genuinely multicultural
Palestine. It's a dream that in some sense underlies
the whole Quartet, with its endless interwoven tales
of miscegenation, disguise, and friendship between Jews
and Muslims, Arabs and black Africans, whiteys and desert
dwellers. But these weighty matters often play second
fiddle to Whittemore's compulsive need to tell madcap
tales about outlandish characters. The central absurdity
of Jerusalem Poker is a 12-year poker match with the
black market control of the Holy City on the table;
the players include Cairo Martyr, an enormous African
ex-slave with a masturbating monkey on his shoulder;
Joe O'Sullivan Beare, an Irish patriot who arrived in
Jerusalem disguised as a nun; and Munk Szondi, a Hungarian
Zionist who carries a watch with three different concealed
faces, all incorrect. Also in the picture is Nubar Wallenstein,
a perverse Albanian nobleman who is in search of the
original Bible, a mad text, "circular and calmly
contradictory," originally discovered and then
buried by his grandfather.
Jerusalem Quartet breaks down into rank silliness, and
Whittemore is by no means above fart jokes, slapstick,
and rather musty sex humor. But the Quartet is no cornball
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Levant. Whittemore's colorful
characters are invariably crippled within (and often
without), and they wrestle fitfully with meaninglessness,
time, and the grim realities of war. Sinai Tapestry
ends with a portrait of the Turks' 1922 genocidal assault
on Smyrna that sobers up the reader like a jackboot
at a sock-hop. As the Quartet progresses, the novels
become less playful, their earlier flights of fantasy
increasingly tempered by failure and pain into a resigned
yet mystic melancholy. Whittemore cracks open the jewel-encrusted
hideouts of fantasy, but he knows that, as one character
says in Nile Shadows, "history gives away your
History for Whittemore
is not a one-way street; it's a psychedelic palimpsest.
In Nile Shadows, which takes place in Cairo during WW
II, O'Sullivan Beare drives through the Sinai toward
the Monastery, an outpost of British espionage housed
in the hermitage where, two volumes earlier, the elder
Wallenstein discovered the original Bible. Like Shelley's
traveler in "Ozymandias," Joe passes monumental
relics in the sand: a WW I boxcar and an Assyrian chariot,
Napoleonic muzzle loaders and an arch from a Roman aqueduct.
The message of Shelley's poem-that all worldly power
crumbles-is offset by the surreality of this procession,
which presents history less as a dry record of domination
and loss than a ridiculous recurring dream.
Stylistically, Whittemore conjures up this hallucinogenic
logic through synchronicities and repetitive motifs.
Though the geopolitics of the Middle East always loom
in the background, Whittemore is constantly probing
for the gaps and loops in time. As in Gabriel García
Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, characters
return in name and shape through their progeny, while
people, events, and certain phrases are regularly reintroduced,
giving you the feeling that you are wandering through
a labyrinth of memory.
These druggy tricks
not only celebrate the hashish, nitrous oxide, and opiates
that pepper the Jerusalem Quartet, but lend the text
the exotic, narrative voice of, say, The Arabian Nights.
In the end, though, Whittemore owes less to Scheherezade
than to Jan Potocki's 19th-century The Manuscript Found
in Saragossa, another riddling and ferociously droll
fantasy by a white wanderer that tucks its obsessions
with sex, secrets, and Levantine lore inside a Russian
doll of narratives.
As with Potocki, Whittemore's romantic flirtations with
the supernatural are ultimately held in check by a bent
irony. Nonetheless, the Jerusalem Quartet is rich with
homegrown theology, and leaves you with a mystic taste
for the empty network of all things: "All lives
are secret tapestries that swirl and sweep through the
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."
Davis - 2000