Sunday, September 8, 2013

Quin's Shanghai Circus, by Edward Whittemore

Open Road Media, ISBN 9781480433885, July 2013

Quin's Shanghai Circus is a product of the 1970s, written by a man who had an amazing career as a military officer, CIA operative, and manager of a Greek newspaper, among other things. The language is lush, the imagery strange and compelling, the story intricate, and the characters complex.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't actually like it.

A young man named Quin, born in Japan and raised in the Bronx, meets a man named Geraty, who suggests to him that he can learn more about his long-dead parents if he escorts a simple-minded adult orphan, Big Gobi, to Japan. Big Gobi's original guardian and sponsor, Father Lamoureux, knew Quin's parents, and in gratitude for Gobi's return, might be prompted to talk about them. It seems Geraty also knew them, or knew of them, before and during World War II, but he claims to know almost nothing.

It seems a simple, if enormous, undertaking, but there's nothing particularly tying Quin to his current abode and employment. So off he and Big Gobi go, traveling on a freighter, returning to Japan where they were both born.

What follows is an intricate journey through prewar conspiracies, espionage, corruption, and mystery. Key figures are Quin's parents themselves, apparently involved in an espionage ring; a one-eyed general, head of the Japanese secret police, the Kempeitei; the general's lover, the prostitute, now madam, called Mama; Mama's sociopathic younger brother; a Russian former Trotskyite disillusioned with with Lenin's Russia became; Father Lamoureux himself; and the General's brother, a Japanese baron whose title and lands passed to the General when he converted to Judaism and became Rabbi Lottman. Each witness tells a story that twists the previous one into strange and unrecognizable shapes, raising a a dozen questions for every real answer Quin gets.

It's a revealing and often dark look at Japan before and during the war, and includes a shockingly brutal account of the Japanese army's atrocities during the Rape of Nanking. Along with the brutality and grotesqueries, though, there is humor, humanity, and compassion.

I didn't like this book, but it is, nevertheless, a good book. It's a glimpse into another world, both the world of the book and the world in which it was written. It's not to my taste, but it is interesting and very well done.

Recommended with reservations; it's not for younger readers or very sensitive readers. Very much an adult read.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.