Sunday, 28 July 2013

Quin's Shanghai Circus by Edward Whittemore

In Edward Whittemore’s masterful and surreal alternate history, a man’s search for answers about his vanished parents propels him on an odyssey from the present into the past, from a bar in the Bronx to Tokyo and Shanghai during the Second World War.

Quin, born in China and raised in the Bronx, is orphaned in the closing days of the Second World War when his parents go missing and are presumed dead in Shanghai. Years later, in a Bronx bar, Quin encounters a stranger who hints that he can uncover the secrets of his past by accompanying Big Gobi, an adult orphan too simpleminded to travel alone, on a journey to meet his guardian in Tokyo. Quin arrives in Japan determined to uncover the truth about his parents’ past, but his search soon raises more questions than answers. What are the connections between a Russian anarchist, a one-eyed baron who is head of the Japanese secret service known as the Kempeitai, and the atrocities committed during the rape of Nanking? And what does any of it have to do with Quin’s parents?

Part espionage novel and part surreal fantasy, Quin’s Shanghai Circus, the first novel by Edward Whittemore, is a remarkable and audacious literary feat. Alive with a fascinating cast of characters and equally enthralling turns of events, former CIA officer Whittemore offers readers a mesmerizing glimpse at a secret history of the twentieth century.

I was delighted to receive this book from the publishers Open Road Media via Netgalley.  Open Road Media specializes in publishing backlist books electronically. Their lists include books like this one which are unavailable in print and which are hard to obtain as a printed book - the cheapest price on for a second-hand paperback is currently £27.47!

One of the great masters of magic realism . . . Tom Robbins? John Irving? Even God Vonnegut—forget ’em—read Whittemore. —Jonathan Carroll.

Edward Whittemore's extraordinary life, as a CIA officer in the Far and Middle East, informs this novel not just through the setting (in China and Japan) but also in its view of the world as illusion and deception.  We are led through a world of lies, like Quin not knowing what and who to believe. This world is huge, realistic and surreal, like a drug taker's trip.

The image of the Shanghai Circus is a metaphor for life: let us recall that other circus, the circus we knew as children. The sweep of the trapeze acts, the grace of the dangerous cats, the ridiculous clowns, the lumbering elephants, the confusing jugglers, the flying bareback riders. A magical show without end because of the magic in a child's heart. Yet when we go back years later we see a different performance. The costumes are shoddy, the smells cheap, the clowns not quite so funny, the aerialists not quite so daring. The dream is gone and what we see is crude, even grotesque. Sadness? Yes. Because we know the circus hasn't changed.
In Whittemore's hands the grotesque circus with the murderous final performance becomes a realm of horror.

This is very much a book for adults. Scenes include a chilling account of the Japanese army's atrocities at the Rape of Nanking and the cast of grotesque characters includes the psychopathic brother of Mama, a tattooed ex-prostitute who had sex with some ten thousand men by the time she was twenty-five. It is not a book for the squeamish. I should probably add at this point that it is also a book leavened with humour, such as Japanese gangsters singing the company marching song to the tune of Roast Beef of Old England.

The other balance to the horror is the scenes of humanity, love and even tenderness, such as the relationship between Quin and the simpleton Big Gobi and that between Mama and the Japanese general she loved. At the core of the book are relationships. Quin starts the book wanting to know about his parents, but as the book progresses that search expands to a need to understand the interrelationship between a much larger cast of characters. As each new character is introduced, the reader and Quin have new questions.

The story twists, turns and reprises. We go down dead-ends, we start again, sometimes the dead ends are not dead at all. Anyone, who like me, enjoys American mystery thrillers will find much to enjoy here. This is a book which merits rereading, as you will miss things on first reading.

So, based on this book, is Whittemore one of the great masters of magic realism? Not if you are require magic realism to have magic. But as we have seen elsewhere on this blog, magic realism can also be defined as realistic fiction infused with surrealism or fantasy. When we read about some of the real activities of the secret services we can't help but think that some of what seems fantastical in this book, e.g. the meeting on the beach of three conspirators wearing gas masks to prevent their words being lip-read, might actually be realistic. This is an extraordinary novel and an important book in the magic realism canon.

This book was given to me by the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

1 comment:

Anne S said...

That's a great review of Quin's Shanghai Circus. Do you mind if I add a link to it on the Jerusalem Dreamingsite, a tribute site I created in appreciation of his novels. You should also read the Jerusalem Quartet which has also been published by Open Road Media.