This novel is a book of stories: anecdote upon anecdote piled on top of each other, not always yielding cohesion, a central plot or even universal binding elements, but always promising entertainment, vivid colorful storytelling, and some of the most original literature ever put on paper.
As there is no chance of the stories events depriving future readers of pleasure, I'll spell out things as cleanly as I can. The original bible was the ramblings of a blind man copied by a mute, dumb imbecile who had a penchant for embellishment. The events of the 'Sinai Bible' as it comes to be called, were predicted seven-hundred years before the actual biblical events. Naturally such a book contradicts every universal truth established in today's three major faiths. This book, is the unifying thread for many of the novel's events and characters. The novel's characters are as outlandish as you would expect considering the premise. "If the Father of the real Bible was an aging blind beggar and the Son was an imbecilic scribe, then Wallenstein would become the Holy Ghost and rewrite Scripture the way it ought to be written. The decision he had made in his cell was to forge the original Bible." This is story unlike any you've previously encountered.
Strongbow is the 29th Duke of Dorset who breaks all family tradition by living past the age of thirty, reading a book, and establishing himself as the world's preeminent scholar on sex in the Levant. In short he is, "a vicious onslaught on the entire rational world of the nineteenth century… In the end nothing could be said of his work except that it was preposterous and true and totally unacceptable." He is also deaf, seven feet seven inches tall, the most capable swordsman alive, turns down an invitation to the Cambridge Masturbation Society (the first to do so in the illustrious history of the club) and the leading expert in global botany. As the study of languages come easy, he takes to wandering the middle east. He eventually finds an original copy of the bible and processing it's knowledge has a very peculiar effect on Strongbow.
Wallenstein is a fanatical monk who decides to forge a copy of the original bible; a project that takes near a decade and claims his sanity. He justifies such a high price in knowing he served the greater good as society isn't ready for the true Sinai bible's truths. As he buries the original, he is observed by the 3,000 year old defender of Jerusalem Haj Harun, once fabled prince of the city. Wallenstein's forgery is later bought and sold many times at extremely high prices as the oldest surveying authentic bible and his life works sees better publicity than Strongbows: a thirty-three volume book on sex, that establishes the principles of "Strongbowism" and see all copies destroyed by the British government with twenty-four hours of publication as it it deemed to be decidedly un-English.
Strongbow's son, Stern, is a bit of a dreamer and writer as well. After receiving a very worldly education he outlines in three hundred pages the governance of a new nation where all peoples of the Levant can live together and in peace. Ironically, such idealic philosophy earns him a job running guns and like his father, seeing his written work destroyed. He finds solace in morphine and Maud, a beautiful American woman with connections to Wallenstein, and Joe O'Sullivan Beare--the Irish hero of the Easter Sunday massacre. (I'll spare you Joe's fourteen other names…) The wild character connections are multi-layered and join many involved in a unique suffering that seems to be a common bond.
While the real Sinai Bible's truths are incessantly on the minds of near all characters there are only loose central elements binding events and characters. Attempting to tease out these character relations and unifying elements is wildly entertaining and nearly impossible upon first reading without taking substantial notes. Collectively, the book feels like little more than an introduction to what comes next, but such a pleasure to read that it is hard to find overall fault.
A narrowing of focus maybe the best way I can describe Whittemores' approach in writing the novel. Events start broad, giving background and what seems an over indulgence of exposition. As events move forward they become more specific and unify multiple characters and Whittemore spends little to no time explaining feelings as the prior 'background' information is so firmly established that we know how the primary characters feel or would act given a certain situation.
As firmly established as some characters become it is how they change that is startling. Events in Syrma, Greece near the end of the first world war take heavy tolls on Stern and Joe. Beare, who has been a war veteran for six of his twenty one years, is suddenly unable to take a life when confronted with the horrific violence of intimate combat as opposed to his long ranged guerrilla warfare in Ireland. Equally sad is watching Stern accept realities of life, and give up on his dreams of peace in the Levant once and for all by the role he plays in this particular battle, and the 'mercy' he is able to grant.
Whittemore's knack of startling graphic violence actually works in this book, where I felt he may have come on too strong in his first novel Quin's Shaighai Circus. Indeed, everything about his writing seems more mature in this novel; from the dialogue to the perhaps overwrought plot complexities.
The book is faux-historical fiction; but it feels real and in some places it feels how events 'should have happened;' not so much an alternate reality, merely a secret one. There are moments when I said out loud, "This is the most absurd thing I've ever read" with a grin on my face, only to keep going. Throughout the duration of the novel, Whittemore spurns the highly preached 'show don't tell' rule focusing on history's highlights that will play a part in his story. He jumps around concerning the books chronology as he introduces new characters and their history. Every new character or chunk of text read makes you want to go back and read something previously covered, not for the purpose of discovering new meaning, but to uncover new mysteries. Despite the near ad hoc feel of the book's sequence of events it reads smoothly, never frustrates the reader and always builds anticipation for what comes next.
There is a constant feeling of starting over as we meet a new character and contrary to what you may think, each new beginning tells us something new about previous events that we thought we had a grasp on. An absurd story, and very unique characters combine for some of the most imaginative reading I've come across; originality like this is rare and an absolute pleasure. It's a grave disservice to English language readership that Whittemore's works are now--for the second time--out of print.
If all the preceding sounds absurd then you should hopefully be intrigued enough to see how it all comes together. He hits on all elements that can be called entertaining, and much like Quin's Shaghai Circus, manages shock and appall with the realities of human condition at war. The Bible is found; wholly rejected, and truth is prized by few. This is not a book that anyone could have written and if most were half as original to do so; it probably still wouldn't have been done this well.