The Oriental Quest Of An Orphan From The Bronx
Quin's Shanghai Circus

By Edward Whittemore.
291 pp. New York, Holt Rinehart & Winston. $7.95


"Quin's Shanghai Circus" is a war novel without the usual furniture of war: no suicide pilots, no fancy kill machines, no homages to the foot soldier, no initiations into the rites of combat, no bittersweet recollections of the home front. Instead, Edward Whittemore's book - a thick, feisty account of Japan's tortured dance with the West before, after, and during Word War II - is peopled with circus masters, prostitutes, priests, gangsters, voyeurs, retarded man-boys, pornography. collectors, pederasts, dwarfs, fat American giants and sadfaced secret-service agents, who change identities from time to time and drift through landscapes that resemble Tokyo, Shanghai and the Bronx.

Some 20 years after the war, a Bronx orphan named Quin travels to Japan in order to root out the mysteries surrounding his dead mother and father, who once pursued multiple careers in old Tokyo and old Shanghai, "cities where people went around in disguises passing themselves off as emperors and Buddhas and dwarfs." Thus "Quin's Shanghai Circus" assumes the shape of a quest novel, with foldings and unfoldings, snarled turns and crablike twists that eventually point backward to prewar Shanghai, an enclave on the edge of China "where a Japanese could still mix with foreigners". Here, "on the edge of sanity," the personae out of Quin's own past witness a doomed circus performance that prefigures the violence and rape of World War II.

Edward Whittemore understands one of the major ironies of our own bloody century, "whereby Japan achieved the goals of the war by losing the war" A defeated Japan could supply goods to the Americans, "who were now fighting wars all over the continent" and bringing prosperity to Japan in a way "that no warlord or ultranationalist could have conceived possible two decades before".'

The chief virtue of the book is its genuine ability to mythologize our recent past, to turn history Into a mode of fiction and reveal to us, as the Shanghai circus reveals to Quin, the outlines of a murderous world - but with action rather than diatribe, and with a pure love of detail: "Before the War, more generals in Japan died from the rupture of a vital organ due to excessive gas than from any other cause. And although the public was unaware of it, having always been given to more heroic versions, it was not until the very last stages of the war that the American B-29 bomber replaced indigestion as the leading cause of death among generals on the active duty list."

And so the fiction spins out: a homosexual Jesuit priest who hates the new Japanese warlords turns spy, inventing an ingenious device for carrying military secrets out of Japan in the bodies of his former acolytes. This priest, Father Lamereaux, is linked to a Russian anarchist, a Japanese baron and Quin's own parents in an espionage ring called "Gobi" that shortens the war and ensures Japan's defeat. In the process, Whittemore amuses, instructs and bites. We move from character to character, from fiction to fiction, with a kind of wonder and delight.

My one complaint is that the allegory of the novel, its incessant search for meaning, becomes suffocating at times. Whittemore insists, over and over again, that we consider the elaborate death-show of the Shanghai circus as a multi-layer dreamscape, "a circus of the mind." The emptied arena becomes "no less than a cavern of the mind", rich in nightmare perhaps, but a bit too exposed. Even Shanghai, "a terminal for all victims and races," reduces itself to "a state of the mind, or to be more precise, an actual part of the mind." And it is this excessive patterning of people, places and events that eats into the fiction, overcrowding the book with structures that should have remained under the skin.

Still, the patterning doesn't break the book's appeal. The hardness of Whittemore's vision isn't trivialized by his devotions to a "cerebral" Shanghai. "Quin's Shanghai Circus" remains a novel packed with invention a bitter feel for history and a profound sense of the Far East, a book that troubles the psyche because it forces us to reevaluate our collective past and reveals to us the contours of a Japan that is quick becoming a saddened parody of America.

Jerome Charyn's most recent books are "Eisenhower My Eisenhower" and "The Tar Baby!'


©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016