The OF Blog: Obscure Classics: Edward Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet

Friday, November 09, 2007

Obscure Classics: Edward Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet

Sometimes, for whatever reason may be imagined under the sun, authors of brilliant works appear to be destined to fade into obscurity. Perhaps the public was not ready for such a challenging work, or maybe the author's oevre was never heavily promoted during his or her lifetime. Whatever the reason, there are many excellent works, both within, without, and skirting the edges of speculative fiction that have had a disproportionate influence on writers and readers. In the first of what hopefully shall be an irregular series, I want to highlight works that have flown under the collective radars of SF fans over the years (with the noticeable exceptions, of course). I shall begin by discussing briefly Edward Whittemore and the four novels that comprise the critically-lauded (but publicly ignored) Jerusalem Quartet: Sinai Tapestry (1977), Jerusalem Poker (1978), Nile Shadows (1983), and Jericho Mosaic (1987).

Edward Whittemore lived more in one life than most readers of this article could ever hope to live in 5 lifetimes. Born in New Hampshire, Whittemore went from becoming a Yale graduate (degree in history), to a US Marine officer, to a CIA spy, to a newspaper reporter, Middle East correspondent splitting his time between New York City and Jerusalem, to a photocopy assistant his last years before dying of prostate cancer in 1995. When reading his novels, one gets the sense that not only did Whittemore live an exciting life, but that his experiences deeply affected how he portrayed the characters and situations.

The first two novels, Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker, take exaggerated physical traits and outlandish behavior as the basis for telling about the Middle East region during the last decades of Ottoman rule. From a 7'7" deaf giant who writes a multi-volume work on Levantine sexual practices to an Irish revolutionary who escapes the Black and Tans by dressing up as a Poor Claire nun and later swapping identities with an elderly survivor of the Battle of Balaclava, to the secret "owner" of the Ottoman Empire, Sinai Tapestry is a tale that wanders dangerous close to being a farce before Whittemore adroitly pulls back on the plot reins, with the end result of a moving tale that might appeal to fans of Terry Pratchett's work, although Whittemore certainly keeps his story grounded in the realities of the early 20th century even despite the oversized heroes going through it.

In Jerusalem Poker, a twelve year-long poker game begins in the city in the late 1920s, overseen by its 3000 year-old guardian, with three main participants (Christian, Muslim, and Jew) and a cast of thousands participating on occasion. At stake is control of the Holy City itself. Whittemore uses metaphor and symbolic character actions to illustrate just what has been at stake in the region for centuries, as well as making a more pointed critique of what was occurring there during the time of the Lebanese Civil War.

The third and fourth volumes, Nile Shadows and Jericho Mosaic, contain more of a spy novel aspect to them. Nile Shadows is set in Cairo around the time of Rommel's defeat at El Alamein in 1942. There is a greater emphasis on intrigue and with characters such as the mysterious Monks (presumably those of the Mount Sinai monastery, the oldest Christian monastery in the world still operating), the action becomes more serious and Whittemore's writing reflects the uncertainties of that time while foreshadowing the conflicts that would erupt in the region after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Nile Shadows is the largest of the four novels at a shade over 450 pages and it serves well as a transition from the more mythical and exaggerated aspects of the first two volumes to the rather tragic and moving final volume.

Jericho Mosaic does not contain any of the mystical or outlandish scenes from the prior volumes. Set in the near-present (1960s-1980s) Middle East, it is an espionage novel that doubles as a pointed commentary on the tragic nature of the fighting and how Jews and Arabs alike were little more than pawns in the chess match that the United States and the Soviet Union were then playing in the region and elsewhere. It also contains some of the more moving passages in the series and it closes in such a way as to make the reader pause, step back for a moment, and then contemplate everything that has gone on, not just in the novels but also in the actual Middle East. The metaphors that Whittemore set up in the previous volumes are fully realized in Jericho Mosaic.

In his lifetime, none of Whittemore's novels sold more than 3,000 hardcover copies or 10,000 paperback editions. Until the 2002 reprinting of these books by Old Earth Books, none of them had been in print since the 1980s and even now, that reissue has gone out of print. Yet Whittemore, with his talents for characterization and the use of exaggeration and metaphors to craft visual scenes, has been lauded by a great many writers. Jeff VanderMeer is one who regularly mentions Whittemore as an influence on his work and there are others writing in the speculative fiction field who likewise have claimed Whittemore as an influence. It is for this as well as for his entertaining and thought-provoking stories that I put forth Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet as an "Obscure Classic."

1 comment:

Michael said...

Plans are afoot to reprint the books! Time, money, etc etc and a more than full time job.

Michael Walsh

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