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.
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Quin's Shanghai Circus
By Edward Whittemore
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Edward Whittemore Estate
All rights reserved.
The suspicious illness and subsequent investigation of a corporal serving in Mukden suggest that an espionage network with astonishing capabilities is operating within the Empire.
The net has access to such important material it must include a member of the General Staff, in addition to whatever foreigners are involved.
The corporal died while undergoing questioning. Just before death, however, he revealed two unrelated facts.
1. The code name of the net is Gobi (the barbarian name for the great desert in western China).
2. The unknown disease from which he was suffering is called, phonetically, Lam-ah-row's Lumbago.
—From a secret report submitted in the autumn of 1937 to Baron Kikuchi, Japanese General in charge of intelligence activities in Manchuria.
The report was said to have been seen in the archives of the Imperial Japanese Army immediately after the surrender in 1945. But it never reached Allied intelligence officers, having been either lost or destroyed in the first days of the Occupation.
Some twenty years after the end of the war with Japan a freighter arrived in Brooklyn with the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue. The owner of the collection, a huge, smiling fat man named Geraty, presented a passport to customs that showed he was a native-born American about as old as the century, an exile who had left the United States nearly four decades before.
The collection contained all the pornographic works written in Japan during the last three hundred and fifty years, or since the time when Japan first closed itself to the West. More important, it included rare manuscripts from several thirteenth-century Buddhist monasteries.
According to Geraty, the very existence of these manuscripts had never been suspected. The tales they told began harmlessly, but before the scholar reached the end of the second page he was confronted with astonishingly obscure practices, and by the beginning of the third page he was totally immersed in devices and dreams and masks, all serving the wildest sort of inversions.
The manuscripts were illustrated with ink drawings exquisitely detailed to show every hair. Even the cat hairs could be counted, where cats appeared.
For the officials at the Brooklyn customs house the sudden appearance of Geraty's collection was an uncommon event. Although they frequently handled questionable materials, never in anyone's memory had the pornography to be examined been of such vast scope.
Thus a second official immediately applied himself to the case, and a third soon joined the second. In fact by the end of Geraty's first day in New York there were no less than eight customs officials of differing ranks and seniority, representing a reliable spectrum of American ethnic and racial and cultural backgrounds, lined up behind a row of desks at one end of the spacious customs warehouse in Brooklyn, solemnly listening to Geraty deliver a lecture on the secret merits of his collection.
He noted at random, for example, in order to emphasize the artistry of the drawings, the patina that had been worked into the leather phalluses and the grain that showed in the spiraled ivory finger pieces. Because of these touches, he claimed, a specialist could easily tell whether the leather was cow or pig or whether the ivory was from north or south India.
The women depicted in the illustrations were as numerous as the men, but they were always shown with their own kind. There was no mixing of the sexes.
After pointing out the value of the manuscripts in the fields of animal husbandry, trade, and sociology, Geraty went on to discuss their literary and historical merits.
The manuscripts were invariably told in the first person. Therefore they were source material for modern Japanese fiction, which was also confessional.
The century under study, the thirteenth, was an era of national upheaval in Japan, an age of revolution led by innumerable orders of fanatical monks. Therefore the manuscripts were a record of the unknown thoughts of these warring monks at a time when Zen and the game of Go, the tea ceremony, rock gardens, and No plays and so many other unique Japanese arts, notorious for their refinement and austerity, first became revered throughout the islands.
Geraty, in short, was able to trace most of modern Japanese history to the pornographic fantasies found in his collection.
The documents had been translated and bound under his personal supervision, a project that had taken forty years of his life. Although reluctant to part with his treasure, he was now returning to the United States to retire. He intended to sell the collection to a university or some other academic institution so that it could be available to scholars.
Or so he claimed.
Finally, with special pride, Geraty discussed his system of annotations. The system was exclusive and comprehensive, his own invention, and could only be understood by using the key or code book. It consisted of numbers in the margins, entered by hand, often as many as sixty-four numbers next to only one line of print. The drawings were thus wedged in between swarms of minute jottings.
These masses of numbers, it seemed, identified and cross-referenced every real or imagined act that took place in all those tens of thousands of pages.
Because he was so fat, Geraty sometimes gave the impression of being less than a giant. When he was sprawled over a bench in the customs warehouse waiting for his audience to assemble, doing nothing, staring blankly at the ceiling, he looked as if he might be only six and a half feet tall. But the moment he began to gather up his arms and legs, a transformation took place.
He seemed to put on weight as he pulled his parts together. It took several minutes for him to find his balance, but when at last he was standing he filled the room he was in, any room, his immense bulk the equal of three or four large men.
Geraty leaned far back to keep his belly from dragging him over. His feet were splayed to support his body, his chin rested on his chest, his massive arms stood out to the sides. When he moved, his hands hung behind him, stiffly jarred by each step. His white hair was clipped short in outdated military fashion and his face was scarred by pockmarks, or perhaps a combination of pockmarks and poorly treated knife wounds.
When he got to his feet the blood rushed to his head, causing it to expand, opening the pits and scars. After a while this swelling subsided together with the deep purple coloring that had accompanied it.
Geraty arrived in New York toward the end of winter. The unraveled tops of three or four sweaters showed at his neck, which was swathed in a piece of red flannel tied with a string. He wore torn military boots, the type issued to American soldiers during the Second World War, and a black bowler hat that might have belonged to a circus performer in the 1920s. Over everything was a military greatcoat, ancient and spotted and patched, of no recognizable era or campaign. Despite his size the ancient greatcoat covered him completely to the floor.
Before much time had passed the eight customs officials were no longer curious or suspicious or even bored, they were simply dazed with disbelief. For several days Geraty had been lecturing them, and they could no longer pretend to understand what he was talking about, or why. The senior of the eight officials, therefore, interrupted Geraty to ask him if he had a letter from a university, or a document of any kind from any academic institution, expressing interest in his collection.
Geraty had to admit he had nothing to show them.
He was then asked to produce academic credentials from the United States or Japan or any country in the world. Again he had to admit he had nothing to offer but his collection.
Throughout these interviews, or lectures, he continued to address everyone as nephew.
The obscenity laws were still strict. Even so, Geraty's case might not have been dismissed as fraudulent had it not been for two facts. First, he never turned up at the customs warehouse even partially sober. Second, it was apparent from his eyes that he was suffering from a long-term addiction to some drug, probably of the stimulant class.
In the midst of a harangue he would suddenly rush away to the toilet, muttering about an incurable Oriental disease acquired in his youth. But later the same day even this pretense would be dropped. Instead of leaving the end of the warehouse where he was lecturing, he would turn around in the middle of an incomprehensible sentence and bury his head in his greatcoat. There would be the unmistakable sound of liquid being sucked through a straw, then a rapid movement of the hands followed by a sneeze and a violent cough.
Geraty turned back to face the eight officials as if nothing had happened, but it was impossible not to smell the fresh alcohol on his breath, or to ignore the unnatural luster of his eyes which were now bulging from his head more prominently than ever.
After these lapses he never failed to make reference to the charity shown to slaves by the founder of the first monastery for women in Ireland, the gently forgiving lady known to history as St. Brigid.
Yet the collection was still an extraordinary effort by someone, and that was the only reason the eight officials spent as much time with him as they did. They took the trouble of sending a report through a special review process, including a senior board that was then in session. To do more Geraty would have had to take his case to court.
All this was explained to him at length one winter morning in the customs warehouse in Brooklyn when the time came to confiscate the collection. Geraty listened gloomily to the decision, then began the long process of getting to his feet. Not until he was standing at full height did he break his silence.
He roared and upended three of the desks. He bellowed and knocked over the other five desks. He shouted that he had no money for lawyers, that America was a lunatic asylum, that the whole country could drink dragon piss down to the day of judgment. When a platoon of guards finally reached the end of the warehouse that Geraty had demolished, they found him struggling to take off his clothes, trying to strip himself naked, either to free himself for a fight or because he was sweating so heavily.
Geraty landed in the street in an Oriental squatting position, perhaps a modification of the lotus, his greatcoat soaking up the snow that had turned to slush in the morning sun. During the next few minutes he was totally immobile, either because he was meditating or because he was stunned, then he abruptly lurched to his feet and staggered down the block shouting the names of saints. He entered the first cheap waterfront bar he came to and was told to shut up or leave. He scratched himself, ordered a double gin, and collapsed in a booth by the window.
For the next thirteen hours he remained in the booth, not leaving even to go to the toilet. He stared at the grimy snow in the gutter, drank gin, and sank into a stupor, all the while carrying on an incoherent dialogue with himself in a variety of Oriental languages and dialects, a journey that began in Japan and moved west and south through Manchuria, from Mukden down the coast of China to Shanghai. From there he took a freighter to the Philippines, snored in the mountains during the Second World War, took a United States army airplane back to Japan, and began the journey again.
When the sun went down Geraty emptied out the pockets of his greatcoat. In the manner of a fortune-teller he spread the objects across the table in front of him. He tapped each one three times and studied it.
A freighter ticket for the return trip to Yokohama.
His real passport.
An empty pint of gin with a straw twisted around the neck.
Sixty-odd dollars, a few less than the years he had lived.
A small gold cross, a Nestorian relic of incalculable value.
Several tattered passports from the 1930s, forged, stating that the bearer was a Belgian expert in animal husbandry, a Belgian dealer in films, a Canadian dealer in patent drugs. None of these false papers of any use anywhere in the world.
A worthless green paperweight that might have been meant to resemble jade, stolen from one of the desks he had overturned that morning.
Along with a screw-top jar hidden in a recess of his greatcoat, this was all he owned in the world.
Late that night Geraty took a subway to the Bowery and knocked on the door of a shelter for homeless alcoholics. Before entering he insisted on presenting his counterfeit Canadian passport with the consular stamp that was thirty years out of date. He was fumigated, given a shower, and sent to bed.
The whole following day he slept. The next day he was able to swallow some soup. On the third day, feeling stronger, he resurrected himself and broke the lock on the closet where his clothes were stored. He made his way to the city bus terminal and found a bus that was journeying north through the Berkshires to a town where there happened to be an orphanage run by an order of Catholic fathers.
Forty-eight hours later he was back in New York without the precious small gold cross or the worthless glass paperweight, his money down to sixteen dollars. As insurance against a robbery attempt he bought a pint of gin, then took a subway to the Bronx, dozing most of the way, occasionally ordering a round of drinks in one Oriental language or another. He found a bar with a steam table and bought three large corned beef sandwiches which he covered with a thick layer of green paste from the screw-top jar hidden in his greatcoat.
He ended the meal with a double gin and a small dab of green paste tucked into each side of his nose. He sneezed and heaved himself out the door, his money now reduced to eight single dollar bills.
Darkness had fallen, the slush was freezing into ice. Geraty picked his way carefully along the sidewalk, his bulging eyes rolling over the buildings and down the alleys. From time to time he stopped under a streetlight to gaze at a fire alarm box, the number on a tenement, the stairs leading down to a basement. Once in the course of every block his hand dipped into the greatcoat and came out with a pinch of green paste which he pushed into his nose absentmindedly.
At last he came to the corner he was looking for, a bar with an old wooden sign in the window. There was a larger neon sign with a different name, but the old-fashioned lettering on the wood, in faded green paint, could still be read beneath the buzzing coils of electric light.
For several minutes he gazed dully at the sign. He had come to the United States for only two reasons, and when those tasks were accomplished he had intended to return to Japan immediately. In the first he had failed. He had been unable to sell his magical collection of pornography. And in the second he had succeeded. He had returned the mysterious small gold cross to its rightful owner.
But now a third possibility crossed his mind. Instead of just making a nostalgic visit to his family's old neighborhood in the Bronx, he would honor his mother by invoking her memory on the feast day of the saint for whom she had been named.
Geraty crossed himself, the first time he had done so in thirty years. From St. Edward the Confessor he begged forgiveness for what he was about to do, for what it might lead to, for the lost paths that might be opened and the forgotten lives that might be discovered. Then he crossed himself once more and kicked aside the door of the bar, shuffled to the counter, clamped a paw on the bartender.
Dragon piss, nephew.
He rested both arms on the counter listening to the noisy conversations around him. Twenty minutes later he was on his way to the toilet at the back, bumping into drinkers as he passed. When he returned he bumped into them again, this time choosing a stool toward one end of the counter next to a younger man whose name was Quin.
Geraty had heard the name soon after coming into the bar. There were two drinkers there with that name, one closer to the right age than the other, but before he approached his man he wanted to be sure the name was spelled correctly. So he had waited until both men were near the counter and picked their pockets as he went to the toilet, replacing their wallets on the way back.
Excerpted from Quin's Shanghai Circus by Edward Whittemore. Copyright © 2002 Edward Whittemore Estate. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Impostor: 1,
Big Gobi: 2,
Father Lameraux: 3,
The Policeman: 6,
Himself, Herself: 7,
An Editorial Relationship,
A Biography of Edward Whittemore,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A great book. Should really be condidered a prolouge of the Jerusalem Quartet. A true tapestry of a novel