Edward Whittemore New York
Photo by Carol Martin
SINAI 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 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.

Jerusalem Poker 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 else.

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 work.

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 this earth".

"It can't 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."

© Lesley Hazleton from The Jerusalem Post - June 15, 1979


©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016