The following is an excerpt from an article by Jeff VanderMeer (creator of the city of Ambergris) entitled "In Pursuit of the Imagination - An Overview of Nine Elusive Books" which was published in the Council for the Literature of the Fantastic Newsletter Issue Number 1, 1995. The rest of the article is worth reading as well and can be found on the Fantastic Metropolis website . See also Jeff's more recent review of the "Jerusalem Quartet" and his review of "Quin's Shanghai Circus" on the SF Site (December 2002)

The Jerusalem Quartet (1979 - 1987) by Edward Whittemore.

The Jerusalem Quartet consists of four novels of unparalleled scope and invention:
Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows, and Jericho Mosaic. The novels are loosely related, in that several protagonists appear in all four, slipping in and out of the narrative as walk-on, secondary, and main characters. Inasmuch as The Jerusalem Quartet tells one story, it follows the tragic exploits of a man named Stern who, hoping to use his wealth to effect peace in the Middle East, winds up running guns to Arabs, Jews, and Christians, in an ever more desperate and self-defeating effort. That said, it also covers the years 1900 through 1975, weaving together different times and places for a thematic resonance that far exceeds anything Thomas Pynchon did in his excellent book V.

The most audacious and ambitious book, Jerusalem Poker, tells the story of a twelve-year (1921--1933) poker game for control of Jerusalem. The three main participants, Cairo Martyr, O'Sullivan Beare, and Munke Szondi, operate the Moslem, Christian, and Jewish quarters of the city. The poker game is played in the shop of Haj Harun, a man who may or may not be seven thousand years old. Along the way, the participants in the poker game discover a thirty-three volume study of Levantine sex and are challenged by the villain of the piece, Nubar Wallenstein, who sends hilariously disjointed missives to his agents in the field.

The novel has one of the great prologues in literature, opening atop the Great Pyramid, where the sun rises on a summer day in 1914. Cairo Martyr, at the time a male prostitute, has just helped a jaded, obese pair of Egyptian aristocrats achieve orgasm, when a triplane flies overhead: "Down, [Cairo] yelled. Down... But the delirious baron and baroness heard neither him nor the airplane. The great red ball on the horizon had hypnotized them with the heat it sent rushing through their aging bodies. Gaily the plane dipped its wings in salute to the most impressive monument ever reared by man, then gracefully rolled away and sped on south... Cairo Martyr got to his feet, not believing what he saw.

The nearly invisible man and woman still stood on the summit with their arms outstretched, but now they were headless, cleanly decapitated by the slashing lowest wing of the triplane. The hulking bodies lingered a few seconds longer, then slowly toppled over and disappeared down the far side of the pyramid".

The four books which make up The Jerusalem Quartet are among the richest and most profound in imaginative literature... and also among the most obscure, out of print for more than ten years. Whittemore wrote one novel before The Jerusalem Quartet, Quin's Shanghai Circus, which, although less complex than the quartet, has much to recommend it. Of all the authors discussed in this article, Whittemore has been the most unfairly neglected and it can only be hoped that his star will rise again in another decade or so. Such a superlative body of work cannot be overlooked forever.

© 1995 - Jeff VanderMeer


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