YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW - APRIL 28, 1974
The Oriental Quest Of An Orphan From The Bronx
Quin's Shanghai Circus
By Edward Whittemore.
291 pp. New York, Holt Rinehart & Winston. $7.95
By JEROME CHARYN
Circus" is a war novel without the usual furniture
of war: no suicide pilots, no fancy kill machines, no
homages to the foot soldier, no initiations into the rites
of combat, no bittersweet recollections of the home front.
Instead, Edward Whittemore's book - a thick, feisty account
of Japan's tortured dance with the West before, after,
and during Word War II - is peopled with circus masters,
prostitutes, priests, gangsters, voyeurs, retarded man-boys,
pornography. collectors, pederasts, dwarfs, fat American
giants and sadfaced secret-service agents, who change
identities from time to time and drift through landscapes
that resemble Tokyo, Shanghai and the Bronx.
Some 20 years after
the war, a Bronx orphan named Quin travels to Japan
in order to root out the mysteries surrounding his dead
mother and father, who once pursued multiple careers
in old Tokyo and old Shanghai, "cities where people
went around in disguises passing themselves off as emperors
and Buddhas and dwarfs." Thus "Quin's Shanghai
Circus" assumes the shape of a quest novel, with
foldings and unfoldings, snarled turns and crablike
twists that eventually point backward to prewar Shanghai,
an enclave on the edge of China "where a Japanese
could still mix with foreigners". Here, "on
the edge of sanity," the personae out of Quin's
own past witness a doomed circus performance that prefigures
the violence and rape of World War II.
understands one of the major ironies of our own bloody
century, "whereby Japan achieved the goals of the
war by losing the war" A defeated Japan could supply
goods to the Americans, "who were now fighting
wars all over the continent" and bringing prosperity
to Japan in a way "that no warlord or ultranationalist
could have conceived possible two decades before".'
The chief virtue
of the book is its genuine ability to mythologize our
recent past, to turn history Into a mode of fiction
and reveal to us, as the Shanghai circus reveals to
Quin, the outlines of a murderous world - but with action
rather than diatribe, and with a pure love of detail:
"Before the War, more generals in Japan died from
the rupture of a vital organ due to excessive gas than
from any other cause. And although the public was unaware
of it, having always been given to more heroic versions,
it was not until the very last stages of the war that
the American B-29 bomber replaced indigestion as the
leading cause of death among generals on the active
And so the fiction
spins out: a homosexual Jesuit priest who hates the
new Japanese warlords turns spy, inventing an ingenious
device for carrying military secrets out of Japan in
the bodies of his former acolytes. This priest, Father
Lamereaux, is linked to a Russian anarchist, a Japanese
baron and Quin's own parents in an espionage ring called
"Gobi" that shortens the war and ensures Japan's
defeat. In the process, Whittemore amuses, instructs
and bites. We move from character to character, from
fiction to fiction, with a kind of wonder and delight.
My one complaint
is that the allegory of the novel, its incessant search
for meaning, becomes suffocating at times. Whittemore
insists, over and over again, that we consider the elaborate
death-show of the Shanghai circus as a multi-layer dreamscape,
"a circus of the mind." The emptied arena
becomes "no less than a cavern of the mind",
rich in nightmare perhaps, but a bit too exposed. Even
Shanghai, "a terminal for all victims and races,"
reduces itself to "a state of the mind, or to be
more precise, an actual part of the mind." And
it is this excessive patterning of people, places and
events that eats into the fiction, overcrowding the
book with structures that should have remained under
Still, the patterning
doesn't break the book's appeal. The hardness of Whittemore's
vision isn't trivialized by his devotions to a "cerebral"
Shanghai. "Quin's Shanghai Circus" remains
a novel packed with invention a bitter feel for history
and a profound sense of the Far East, a book that troubles
the psyche because it forces us to reevaluate our collective
past and reveals to us the contours of a Japan that
is quick becoming a saddened parody of America.
most recent books are "Eisenhower My Eisenhower"
and "The Tar Baby!'