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whittemore and the poetics of atrocity

Jason sepia


I'm currently two-thirds of the way through Edward Whittemore's novel Quin's Shanghai Circus (I expect to finish it in the next day or so), and so far it's beautiful and horrifying and incredible. Espionage around World War II, decadent circuses, exile and expatriation, conspiracies, and the barbarities of war. Whittemore's prose style is gorgeous in its simplicity and rhythms, and I could kick myself for not reading his writing earlier. It's so difficult to believe that this was his first novel.

Incredibly knowledgable of Asian history, and especially between the 1930s and the mid-1960s, Whittemore presents a vivid picture of international relations and war in the region, and a small group of spies hoping to keep things from getting even worse. The eponymous Quin travels to Japan in the 60s to find out about his parents (who may have been members in the aforementioned spy ring) after a tip from an obscenely fat clown named Geraty, and what he finds is an incredibly intertwined series of relationships and clanestine dealings that have set the current course of history in motion.

Whittemore doesn't shy away from writing about both sex and death, and his passages on the atrocities of dominance and war are especially graphic and poetic. It is as if this is both the most effective way to impart the proper impact of such horrifying events and the only way that we as readers can deal with them. Salman Rushdie uses the same technique in Shalimar the Clown, repeating the same phrase again and again, making it unforgettable but also at the same time elevating violence to poetry so that the abominations being described do not destroy us.

For example, here's a section on the Nanking Massacre in December 1937, told in one breathless monologue by a Japanese army corporal (skip if you're easily disturbed):

The men, moaned the corporal, they weren't even animals. A soldier speared a baby with a bayonet and threw the baby in the air. A soldier stabbed a woman and skinned her legs. A soldier got over the hind quarters of a horse and pushed himself in. A soldier had a belt of human hair and was eating something. A soldier was playing with a little girl, cutting holes in her, pushing himself in. There was a head in the street. There was a whole row of heads beside a building. They were lining people up and shooting them, building fires around them, tying grenades to them. They threw them out the windows, they dropped stones on them. They tied them under trucks. They used machine guns and pistols and blew up rooms and set fires and pushed people into the fires and cut off parts and roasted the parts and ate them. A soldier ran in circles shouting army regulations, shooting people, stabbing people, clawing his own face down to the bone. They raped and raped and then they raped with bayonets, with rifles, firing the rifles. They used grenades that way to blow women up. A soldier sat on a pile of bodies screaming. A soldier held a pistol to a girl's face and made her drink his urine. He made her lie down and did something on her face and crushed her face with his boot. They cut out eyes and buried people and made them crawl through glass. They beat them with their rifle butts. They broke teeth with their rifle butts. They beat them in the face and clubbed them over the head with their rifle butts. A soldier rode on an old man's back stabbing him with his knife. The old man fell and the soldier kicked him and hit him in the head and fired bullets into his head and kept on kicking him. They made them kneel and do things to each other. They made them bend over and do things to each other. They held a girl's hand and made her castrate her father. They cut off a boy's nose and made him chew it. They beat him between the legs with their rifle butts and beat his chest with rifle butts and poured gasoline over him and set him afire. They went on shooting people and lining them up and shooting them and there was nothing but screams, and machine guns and fires and rifle butts and pistols and bayonets and knives and screams, and shadows and bodies and faces and screams and fires and people being shot and stabbed and clubbed and kicked and beaten and trampled, crawling people, screaming people, old men and children screaming, women screaming, people burning and running and falling in the fires and the shadows and the darkness, soldiers shooting and people screaming, screaming. (143-4)

Incidentally, there are similar reports (though not nearly to this magnitude) of such behavior by the Japanese in both Okinawa and Singapore during their occupation in World War II. Important to remember if you think all Japan is known for is cheap electronics and manga/anime.

Anyway, I'll definitely be seeking out Whittemore's other four books after this, though I know it'll be difficult because of their lack of availability. Still, I haven't gone on a book hunt in a while, and the chase is almost as fun as the capture. I can safely recommend Quin's Shanghai Circus even if I haven't yet finished it, and believe that Whittemore's profile should definitely be increased. Jeff VanderMeer and Anne Sydenham have individually done much to get his name out there, but there's more work to do. Please pick up the man's books and spread the word.

Comments

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coppervale
Nov. 5th, 2007 06:34 am (UTC)
Doesn't one of the small presses (Old Earth, I think) have them all in print? I got a couple at WFC a few years ago.

And yes...EW is magnifico.
jlundberg
Nov. 5th, 2007 07:59 am (UTC)
Sadly, Old Earth has let all Whittemore's books, except for Jerusalem Poker, go out of print (their website lists them as "Temporarily Out of Stock," but that note has been on their website for a while now). The only way to get my hands on them is either through the library (which only has the 3rd and 4th book in the quartet, along with Quin), or try to find them second hand at exorbitant prices.

This is why I'm kicking myself, that despite JeffV's enthusiastic recommendations, I didn't get the books when I had the chance.
silk_noir
Nov. 5th, 2007 12:25 pm (UTC)
Jesus.

And this all goes back into my cauldron of concern--why do humans act this way?
jlundberg
Nov. 6th, 2007 03:20 am (UTC)
I know. It's something I think a lot about. How can we be capable of such appalling acts of violence? There are times when I'm right there with Mark Twain, convinced that there's no redemption for the human race; thankfully, these periods don't last too long, otherwise I wouldn't even be able to get out of bed in the morning.
rezendi
Nov. 5th, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC)
I recommend Mo Hayder's The Rape of Nanking and, especially especially especially, Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in a vaguely similar vein.
jlundberg
Nov. 6th, 2007 03:23 am (UTC)
I've read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and the passage above made me think immediately of it, of the scene where the Japanese army men skin a prisoner alive. I'm a pacifist by nature, and it's really difficult for me to read such material, but it's important to be reminded every so often of what human beings are capable of, though with many of the reports out of Iraq, I guess I'm reminded of it every day.
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