Book: Sinai Tapestry - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: Sinai Tapestry
Friday, 27 October 2006 at 10:20 am
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Author: Edward Whittemore

Details: (c) 1977 Edward Whittemore; Pub Magnum 1979; ISBN 0-417-03400-8

Verdict: Sinai Tapestry is strangely compelling despite being weird.

Reasons for reading it: rysmiel read Chaim Potok's The book of lights at my recommendation, and suggested that if I enjoyed that I might get on with Whittemore.

How it came into my hands: lethargic_man brought it with him to lend to me when he came to visit last week, which was much appreciated.

I was most of the way through Sinai Tapestry before it started to grow on me. I don't know if it actually counts as magic realism but it has many of the features of the genre that I don't get on with. It veers between surreal and silly, and its style of humour doesn't really appeal to me. Somehow it kept me reading though. I think it's that there is something very human about the characters, even though they are patently ludicrous such as being 7' 7'' tall or several thousand years old.

Sinai Tapestry is not allegory, or at least not in any way I could pick up; it just wants total suspension of disbelief. And once I stopped trying to find the hidden meaning or the underlying rules or any other such features that this kind of novel often have, it works as a story on its own terms extremely bizarre terms. I never got into the humour as such, but the book worked surprisingly well as a serious piece that just happened to be placed in an extremely surreal and nonsensical frame. It doesn't entirely refrain from moralizing, but the moralizing it does is beautifully subtle, and in general the novel really made me think and had an emotional impact, even though consciously I thought I was reading something so surreal it bordered on the nonsensical. It does an amazingly good job of confusing what might just possibly be real world history with its own bizarre alt-history version, too.

I can't really see how this is similar to The book of lights, but I'm still glad I read it.

Note to blurb writers: nothing ever benefits from being compared to LotR. I guess one day it will happen that someone will write something as good, but I really hope that when that does occur, the marketing people will have enough sense not to put that stupid comparison on the cover.


Whereaboooots: Jerusalem
Moooood: weirdweird
Tuuuuune: Nightwish: Nemo
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lethargic_man: reflect
From:lethargic_man
Date:October 29th, 2006 09:48 am (UTC)
11 hours after journal entry, 10:48 am (lethargic_man's time)
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Indeed, what an odd book. I was profoundly underwhelmed by the first half, to the extent of not being certain I was going to bother finishing the book —something (not finishing a book) I almost never do, as you know. The confusion of, well, everything, in the Sinai Bible did not help to persuade me the author knew what he was talking about. (OTOH this may be due to my reading the polemics in the Hertz Pentateuch against Wellhausian Biblical criticism; and looking at the text with my own eyes to try and come to my own conclusions; such bones of contention as we've discussed before, e.g. whether the use of terms for "husband" really do point to a later origin of the book of Deuteronomy).

I'm not entirely sure the first half of the book merited telling, so much; but you needed to have read it in full for the fact Stern lives his life in Strongbow's shadow, etc, to have meaning. And, as rysmiel pointed out to me when we first discussed this book, Strongbow lives in a mythical age, of which plausibility is not the point; the book deliberately shifts in its length from that to a more realistic mode. Which is unusual: setting a Golden Age of myth in such a recent time period (and nor viewed from a period one thousand years in the future either).

Even after the pace began to pick up in the second half, I was still not sure I intended to track down any of the further books in the series, until I got to the climax, which packed a very powerful punch. I had vaguely known that a substantial Greek population remained in the Byzantine centres in western Anatolia until the Turks kicked them out after WW1, but had no idea of the context or the scale of the human tragedy, nor of the despicable conduct of the Western powers in standing by and watching it happen. (Though tbh we're not much better nowadays; pulling the UN out of, say, East Timor and only sending it back in after the Indonesians had had their fill raping, murdering and pillaging speaks to me of a kind of wilful blindness: if we don't see if happen, we can't be held responsible for it.) I also have to find out if the "boys' work secretary of the YMCA in Smyrna [being] made the commander of the entire Greek fleet" really happened, or whether that was just Whittemore playing around.

I'm surprised the book didn't talk about Smyrna itself dying that day: the city that existed afterwards was Izmir, not Smyrna.

(I also ought to read more about the Skanderbegs. I had thought Whittemore made them up out of whole cloth, but have come across the name in a different context since.)
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lethargic_man: reflect
From:lethargic_man
Date:October 29th, 2006 09:48 am (UTC)
11 hours after journal entry, 10:48 am (lethargic_man's time)
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The chronology of the latter part was also rather odd, though I thought that it did work. Indeed, I should really have spotted that the story was going to come back to what happened in Smyrna after it first skirted past it. The technique of heading each chapter with a quotation from it itself was also unusual; [minor spoiler for the rest of this paragraph] that only really worked well, IMO—though was probably worth it for this one case—in the case of the climactic chapter ("Stern picked up the knife, Joe watched him do it. He watched him take the little girl by the hair and pull back her head. He saw the thin white neck"), where the impact of the quotation is completely changed by the time you get it to it the second time.

Calling Strongbow's son Stern, BTW, was a sneaky thing to do. The name suggests the leader of the Jewish terrorist group the Stern Gang; but nicely subverts the reader's expectations since this Stern is diametrically opposed to that one. (A bit like in Siddhartha: Siddhartha's early history being sufficiently like that of the Buddha as far as the sketchy outline in my mind is concerned, I put two and two together and was surprised when Gautama walked on stage a third of the way through.) Interestingly, we never do learn what Stern's Hebrew or Arabic names are.

As for the blurb comparing the book to tLotR, I was more irritated by the comparisong to A Canticle for Leibowitz. I can't really see much of a similarity. The one obvious exception is the old man who never dies. I liked Haj Harun being Melchizedek; there is, I believe, a whole
load of Midrash about Melchizedek (you would probably know more about it than me). IIRC Melchizedek is traditionally equated with Shem, son of Noach (who, if you believe the inflated ages in Genesis, was still alive at the time of Abraham). However, the big difference here from aCfL is that there is no reason given (or at least I couldn't see one) for the fact Haj Harun does not die.

Actually, I was not sure until halfway through that Haj Harun really was immortal. He claimed to be, but I didn't necessarily trust what he said.

I found the book had a rather odd portrayal of history; it missed out most of what I would consider the important events of Palestinian history of that era. (The growing Jewish Yishuv is barely hinted at.) Though rysmiel informs me this is because I've only read one of the four books of the quartet.

Finally, as a minor point, I don't remember any caves on Jebel Musa (Mt Sinai) from when I was there, but there was a small chapel for extremely dedicated monks to live right up on the top. Extremely dedicated as in, they'd have to descend and ascend the whole mountain on a daily basis simply to get water.
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rysmiel: vacant and in pensive mood
From:rysmiel
Date:October 29th, 2006 06:02 pm (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 02:02 pm (rysmiel's time)
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I think the point of the comparison with Lord of the Rings in that case was pretty much "What else can I think of that is completely sui generis ?" nor am I at this point sure what, beyond a certain similarity of flavour that's very hard to pin down, made me think of it when I read The Book of Lights.

The arc from Golden Age to realism is in the shape of the quartet as a whole as well as in the first book, so that by Jericho Mosaic, which comes pretty much up to time of writing, the series has become a really top-notch realistic espionage novel. [ Whittemore had some professional involvement with the CIA, and a common thread among the various introductions and associated material in the recent reprints of the Quartet is nobody being entirely sure what that involvement was or where it stopped. ] I would certainly recommend the rest to you, but they're not things you are likely to casually stumble over.
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