Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jericho Mosaic by Edward Whittemore

For comments on books one, two and three of The Jerusalem Quartet, Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, and Nile Shadows please follow the respective links.

The primary difficulty in commenting on the final novel in the Jerusalem Quartet is in putting it in context. This book stands alone better than any other it’s predecessors. Quin’s Shanghai Circus—a book outside the Jerusalem Quartet—has more unifying events and characters relating to the Jerusalem Quartet than Jericho Mosaic, the quartet’s end cap, does. When viewed on its own, it is an exceptional novel. Readers only have to detach themselves from all they’ve grown to love about the first three books to appreciate Jericho Mosaic for what it is. And in giving up so much, I'd be lying if I said Whittemore doesn't give birth to a bit a resentment on the part of at least this reader.

"Being holy, Jerusalem was an endless source of myth. (page 5)"

Finally. After a book long excursion in Egypt we are home in Jerusalem. The affect this shift in setting has on the reader is substantial and with it comes the great expectations of the series first two books. Sure, like the previous works in the series, there is a great deal of travel: Lebanon, Syria, Argentina, and most notably the titular Jericho, but the beginning of the novel is in Jerusalem. As readers, we brace ourselves in preparation for the bizarre originality that Jerusalem seems to best bring out in Whittemore. However, as the Rolling Stones once said, "You can't always get what you want."
Jericho Mosaic is about an Iserli spy and unrest the Middle East that spans forty years. Tajar, a crippled Israeli intelligence officer 'raises' Yossi, and Iraqi Jew, to the be the greatest Israeli spy ever. Their success is unprecedented--both in dangers and results. Bell is a horrifically scared, Caucasian Christian Holy man who greatly resembles a British intelligence commander from Nile Shadows. Anna Cohen moves to Jerusalem from Cairo and finally settles into a sustainable life including a family of sorts. There is also a lot dealing with the PLO and KGB, the Israeli six day war, and "The Runner" operation: the most secretive espionage circuit ever conceive in the Middle East. Despite the cast of characters and the return to Jerusalem, events are more predictable, and mundane than what we've come to expect from the author.

There are secret agents, double agents, and nods to "a mostly blind Argentine" author but missing are the unique scenarios, and wandering character connections. Much of the Whittemore's pontifications on life are present as we see Bell's life, and that of his close friends, unfold in Jericho. In this novel there is less of a sense of 'story telling' and more of a generic feeling of plot, suspense and straightforward narrative.

Much like Sinai Tapestry the narrative bounces around between multiple characters and never sticks with one long enough to become attached rather, leaves you wanting more. Unlike Sinai Tapestry, Jericho Mosaic is that last book in the series; there is nothing more to follow. All the characters and their lives are extremely interesting but in comparison the presentation feels shallow and superficial to previous characters in the series.

Repetition--a concept one would think Whittemore immune to based on previous books--plagued Jericho Mosaic. I can recall at least three passages which detail the KGB's move to Cyprus; long passages that did nothing to advance the story. It was almost as if Whittemore was running out of material. Themes of two-sided characters, inherent to a 'spy' book, are brought up but never fully explored. There is also a woefully underdeveloped concept of disfigurement: Bell with the face of a demon, Moses an Ethiopian eunuch, Tajar a cripple due to past war injuries all go on to achieve great things in their life yet the novel continually focuses on real horrors of World War II that so easily shatter the phantastic setting of quasi-reality the author had achieve in previous entries. The most subtle, and best developed theme, was of the power of the exile abroad: Bell, Anna, and Yossi all find strength in being away and control over their lives that never seemed possible.

Jericho Mosaic is an exceptional novel and successful on all levels; a book with many layers that would benefit from re-reading. Perhaps the book's only true flaw is that it was the published closure of the Jerusalem Quartet with its meager relations to the previous novels it may have been better to stand on it's own.


Terry Weyna said...

I want very much to read Whittemore's books, but they are very difficult to find. I suppose I could just go to, but that feels like cheating.

Nice review, Chad -- you make me want to read all of Whittemore's work more than ever.

Chad Hull said...

Terry, if you're interested in Whittemore don't be as much of a prude as I was about doing so. I just *had to* get all the first edition hardbacks... and yeah it was worth it and also pricy. There was a second edition printing of Whittemore's books by Old Earth Books (or perhaps it's Old Earth Press, I'm not sure.) Most all of those can be found on Amazon NEW for very reasonable prices.

As to what you can't find, just buy any cheap mass market paperback you can find. To say "I've read Whittemore" is more valuable than to brag about collectors editions you may own. Make Fred read these books if he hasn't, that would be some interesting insight after all the Whittemore academic discussion I've been reading as of late.

I'm most amazed that I've read something you haven't! (Let alone that I could inspire you to read some I read that you haven't.)

Terry Weyna said...

Chad, I'm sure you've read hundreds of books I haven't gotten to yet! Thousands, even. So many books, so little time.

The Whittemore appears to be difficult to get for a reasonable price even on Amazon -- used paperbacks of some of them are going for hundreds of dollars! Wish my local library had these; that would make it much easier.

Terry Weyna said...

Wait a minute -- the library DOES have them! How have I missed this before? New purchases, perhaps. Now I'm excited!

Chad Hull said...

Totally awesome if you can get it from the library. We may have differing opinions on what is expensive, but I'm gonna email you some links. ( I see them for about $5.)

Benelux Beeldverhalen Prijs said...

Dear Chad,

As the Quartet's Dutch editor, I like your reviews of the books. However, I do feel that you are a bit harsh in your judgment of JERICHO.

Like the other books the sense of place of the Middle East is incredible. The tastes, smells, heat and the mindset are wonderfully portrayed.

There is one other thing - for me a very important thing - JERICHO has that sets it apart from the others. It is a spy novel, imho one of the greatest ever written. In order to write it realistically, Whittemore sacrificied the more phantastical, allegorical, esoterical, religious elements which we love in his small oeuvre.

We know very little about the author's life, but to me this book proves that he had more than a passing acquaintance with the spy trade - his knowledge of its inner workings is at least as good as John Le Carré's.

To me it would explain what he was doing in all these locations, instead of writing these brilliant, strange and wonderful books - which is a great cover.
Yours Rienk Tychon

Chad Hull said...

Hello Rienk,

Thanks for stopping by to comment!

There has been so much interest in Whittemore as of late. It makes me wonder...

I'm usually most critical of books I enjoy. I'm not sure why that is; it's just how I am. That said, I do try to provide reasons to substantiate my feelings. Perhaps it was harsh, but I did call it 'exceptional' in the first and last paragraph and had hoped that would communicate my sentiment.

I think I'm a bit ambivalent--leaning towards, 'I loved it'--concerning Jericho Mosaic: it's the least related to the previous, arguably 'source' material, and yet, when I think back to the Jerusalem Quartet its Jericho Mosaic that most readily comes to mind. Perhaps it's the most tangible and easiest to grasp since it stands alone so well and isn't as exhausting to read.

For me all the books are wonderful--exceptional, even--but as a reader, I did feel a bit led astray with the finale. Not due to quality of writing or the story told, rather presentation. Jericho Moasaic was different enough from its predecessors to be jarring. It wasn't bad in any way, and it certainly felt like Whittemore's writing only that he wanted to go in a different direction than the previous three novels, and consequently, what readers would expect from the fourth.

I don't doubt your thoughts on it being a spy novel. That is not a genre that I'm familiar with or have great interest in. I enjoyed the book for what it was but probably would have gotten more out of it if I had greater familiarity with spy novels.

It's so much fun talking about books I haven't even noticed how much I'm rambling!

I hope the Dutch edition is a great success.

Best Regards.