Friday, June 09, 2006

Edward Whittemore – An Introduction

As I run the tribute site Jerusalem Dreaming - an appreciation of the writings of Edward Whittemore, I should blog about the man and his books.

If you have not read Whittemore, you are missing out on one of the best writers of the 20th Century. His books are great lost classics. They are the sort of books you discover in dreams and wake wondering if they exist anywhere in the world. His published works only number five books, but what books they are! The Jerusalem Quartet, which comprises
Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows and Jericho Mosaic is nothing less than a secret history of the world, and moreover, explains better than any other works, why the Middle East has been, and still is, such a hotspot in world affairs.

Born in America, Edward Whittemore spent most of his life abroad, living in Japan, England, Italy, Crete and Jerusalem. He was a CIA agent for nine years, from 1958 to 1967. He died penniless in 1995 at the age of 62.

For those who have not read the books the following may not make all that much sense, but it will at least give you some idea of the complexity of the novels. Do not be put off by this as the books themselves are a delight to read, and are highly entertaining.

Historical Sources

There is currently a discussion on the
Jerusalem Dreaming Message Board regarding the historical sources for Whittemore’s novels.

Jean-Daniel Breque who is the translator for the French editions of the novels, tackles his translations in a thoroughly professional way, looking up any stray reference within the text for hidden meanings found therein. He writes a column at the Dan Simmons website as he is also the French translator for Simmons and enlightens Simmons’ readers in a similar fashion.

Jean-Daniel is currently translating Nile Shadows and has uncovered some interesting historical connections between Whittemore’s characters and real-life figures.

The three wise men who visit Joe in his kivi and recruit him to investigate Stern, are none other than William Donovan (Big Bill),
William Stephenson (Little Bill) and Stewart Menzies (Ming).

Cross referencing these three in Wikipedia one finds that they all were associated during World War II in Intelligence circles.

Joe, in the novel, is assigned the undercover persona of G O Gulbenkian, an itinerant dealer in Coptic artefacts. The real Gulbenkian,
Calouste Gulbenkian , was an Armenian art collector and oil millionaire, known in his time as “Mr Five Per Cent”. Sophia's story is obviously drawn from this source as well, though in her case Whittemore has playfully changed the sex.

It is possible that in writing the Jerusalem Quartet Whittemore was planting clues to a deeper mystery within the novels. The Quartet is truly a secret history of the world and it is only by delving deeper into the structuring of characters within the historical settings in the novels, that new truths are revealed. Or conversely, Whittemore is kidding us all with his play on history as he writes of Nubar Wallenstein terming a report from his spy network “a meaningless fantasy, a web of buffoonish tales having nothing to do with reality”

On the other hand he is meticulous in describing obscure historical events with absolute accuracy.

There is no doubt that Whittemore appropriated history for his own ends. Mind blowing to contemplate is the depth and breadth of his knowledge of history and literature. One would have to be as well read as Whittemore himself to discover all the allusions to history and literature contained in the novels. But it is fun seeking out his sources and illuminating when one discovers a hitherto unknown historical fact or literary reference.

A few interesting historical sources thus far discovered:

1. Johann Luigi Szondi described in Jerusalem Poker as a "highly gifted linguist with a passion for details," is based on
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt an explorer, orientalist and traveller extraordinaire.

2. Father Yakouba the white monk of Timbuktu – is based on Auguste Dupuis (1865–1945) who co founded the first Christian mission in Timbuktu in 1895 where he quickly fell in love with the polyglot Muslim town and was accepted by its inhabitants, who named him "Yakouba”.

3. The real Sinai Bible, like the Bible in Sinai Tapestry, was discovered at St Catherine’s Monastery in 1844 by German scholar Constantine Tischendorf

Check out the Jerusalem Dreaming Message Board thread
“The Roots” for more revelations.

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