Author of The Book of War, James Whyle, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

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The Book of War
James Whyle
Publisher: Jacana Media
ISBN: 9781431403479

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Inter-review by Janet van Eeden

Taking into account that a homage is an act of respect or reverence paid or rendered through the work of one artist to another artist’s work, The Book of War is, as such, a homage to Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. In McCarthy’s novel a runaway known only as “the kid” finds himself in the company of a group of rogue adventurers who become mercenaries in a scalp-hunting expedition to rid the land of Indians. Blood Meridian dives nose first into the depravity of humankind with the unrelenting eye one has come to expect from McCarthy.

James Whyle’s The Book of War spans the Eastern Cape Frontier Wars of the mid-19th century and also has a young lad known only as “the kid” as its central protagonist. The kid is part of a band of ruffians. These irregulars, as they are called, find themselves authorised to clear the uncharted territories of the Eastern Cape of unwanted inhabitants by whatever means they can. They, under the command of their young captain, lay waste to the people they encounter as they break down the settlements of so-called heathens. Violence is relentless and bleak on all sides, even sometimes within the irregulars’ own camp. Rape and murder take place as a matter of course as the band of men move through the landscape of the Eastern Cape.

Tenderness is reflected for a brief moment when the kid takes an abandoned yellow puppy under his wing. The war unfolds through the eyes of the boy; the events so horrific to him when he first encounters them become almost mundane as the war wears on. The kid comes of age in the service of a barely acknowledged authority in the most brutal of arenas.

Whyle’s novel is a masterpiece of exquisite prose depicting one of the many times in our country where faceless violence ruled. Although his debt to McCarthy is implicit in the framing of the story, Whyle’s strength as a writer takes the novel to heights of its own. Whyle is a writer whose skill shines in every line. His descriptions of the landscape and the men in it are sublime. Disciplined and impersonal at times, writing of this calibre is rare in our country. Not only does Whyle reflect on a particularly horrific chapter in the bloody history of this land, he does it in a new and admirable way. The impartial eye of the writer does not apportion blame to either side of the battle. It allows readers to see the violence of the past for what it is: one very real aspect of humankind.

Whyle’s marriage of history with fine craftsmanship has shot him straight to the forefront of our writing community. His style is inimitable, his ways with language poetic, and he can hold his own against the few literary giants who have emerged from this continent. Rian Malan says that The Book of War is “a very good book, possibly great”. I would take Rian’s statement a step further: The Book of War is a great book, in every sense of the word.

Q&A with James Whyle

James, you give full credit to Cormac McCarthy for inspiring your harrowing novel, The Book of War. What made you decide to pay tribute to him in this novel, and how did the marriage of your “kid’s” journey coincide with the Eastern Cape Frontier Wars? What made you choose this era in particular?

The point was not to pay tribute to McCarthy. A homage to Blood Meridian without a Judge Holden figure would be a bit like a homage to the Mona Lisa without a smiling woman in it. The point was to try and understand and bring alive South Africa and its history. McCarthy opened a door on to a way of doing that. The era is/was a hundred years before I was born.

When I learnt that Blood Meridian was based on first-hand accounts of events occurring a hundred years before McCarthy was born, I wondered what a parallel search would throw up in South Africa. I came upon two accounts of what has been variously called – as South Africa contorts itself about its history – The Eighth Kaffir War, The War of the Prophet, The Eighth Frontier War, The Eighth War of Freedom and The Eighth War of Dispossession. The books I discovered were: What I Saw in Kaffirland by Stephen Bartlett Lakeman and Campaigning in Kaffirland: or Scenes and Adventures in the Kaffir War of 1851–2 by William Ross King. (It must be noted that both titles contain the Arabic word for “heathen”, the word that Osama bin Laden used about George Bush, a word as toxic in present-day South Africa as the Latin word for “black” is poisonous in America.)

Skimming Lakeman and King, I knew immediately that they provided the germs of the characters and the journey I needed. Near the start of Lakeman's account is a description of a mutiny. Lakeman has assembled from the streets of Cape Town a group of mercenaries and armed them with the revolutionary (the pun is intended) Minié Rifle. Shipped to Port Elizabeth, they depart on foot for Grahamstown. They are not long into the march when one of Lakeman's irregulars tries to kill him. Lakeman, just 22 years old, asserts his authority via the barrel of his Adams revolver, the mutineer is lashed, and the column proceeds. The scene is a node of dramatic action, a little set piece, and I took it and reworked it with McCarthy's voice loud in my head.

Not unsatisfied with the result, I developed a method. I knew that I would take from McCarthy the notion of a Bildungsroman, the idea of a child, a blank slate whose destiny is to come to manhood, and find, against all odds, an intimation of humanity in an arena of war. I would take the name “the kid”, because it signified for me a kind of western archetype, young Everyman, and because of the strange dissonance it created in an African context. I would take characters derived from Lakeman and I would place them in King's journey through the war.

There were the germs of the characters in Lakeman and there was the journey and the landscape and the botany in King and so I followed King's path through the country I grew up in, and as I followed him the characters grew into their crooked shapes, crooked men in a crooked landscape, and began to speak in their own voices and I looked at the landscape and the characters through a glass ground by McCarthy. Viewed in this manner South Africa's history was both horrific and, in a sense, guiltless, because all humans – resident natives and invading Europeans alike – were seen impartially. They were aspects of biology, of nature, equal and savage, and if there was a crucial difference between them it lay in the technology which they employed to kill each other. For a long time I had been searching for a way to write which made me happier, had even discovered some rhythmic tricks, like use of the word "and" in place of a comma to provide an iambic, biblical accumulation .

Reading McCarthy I saw I could go further. I was aware soon enough that a writer using such a process could be written off as derivative, but I was confident yet that what I was doing was new. I had the feeling that there were things akin to entangled particles at work and that if, from one aspect, my book was derivative, then it would be, from another, inevitably and entirely original. And as I wrote and studied Blood Meridian I became aware to what extent McCarthy's work derives from work before it and I was happy enough because I knew that I had myself been influenced by many writers, and if I was now influenced by McCarthy, who had in turn been influenced by his own extensive and partly overlapping set, then the influences on The Book of War would be like ripples of light which, coming from different sources, collide and emphasise and cancel one another and the patterns thus formed would be complex and unique.

I have to be brutally honest here and say that I’m not a huge fan of McCarthy’s world view. His older work is underpinned by nihilism, although his latest work, The Road, promises to show at least a few redeeming aspects of humanity. Nihilism is great as a theoretical exercise, but when you see young people embrace his philosophy completely and subsequently find nothing to live for in this world, it doesn’t seem useful to me. It’s tough to tell someone who has made the film Sunset Limited his bible, for example, that things will get better in the morning. I think the devotees of his work might be inspired to kill themselves rather than to contribute meaningfully to society. Apart from his skilfully sparse prose and his evocative imagery, what is it about McCarthy that captures your imagination?

I don't know about nihilism. The philosophical underpinnings of Blood Meridian are probably Gnostic as much as anything. Here's a little light reading on the subject. Okay, it's not light. But it does reflect my thinking on mercy and free will as themes central to Blood Meridian.

Writing The Book of War must have been an enormous act of self-discipline. Not only is the prose rigorous and bleak, you have done an incredible amount of research into this era and it shows in every page. Where did you find your inspiration for this bloody time in our history, and where did you get most of your historical research material from?

I've been reading about and pondering Eastern Cape history since my twenties. Lakeman’s and King's eye-witness accounts are listed in the disclosure at the end of the book. Noel Mostert's Frontiers and Jeff Peires's The House of Phalo and The Dead Will Arise should be taught at school. Their sources offer a rich field for the explorer.

The military dispatches which you scoured as your source material would have given you much of the detail about the encounters and the daily lives of the band of irregulars, but your poetic eye comes through in the vividly accurate descriptions of the landscape. It comes across to me as the writing of someone who loves that area, or at least knows it very well. I know you spent some time in the Eastern Cape at Rhodes University, but is there a reason this area attracted your attention other than that?

I grew up there. The landscape in the book, however, like the weather, is almost always a development of King's observations.

You quote Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for supplying the distinctively “wild, unspeakable hindoo odour” to your novel. What exactly do you mean by that?

The phrase, or close to it, appears in Moby Dick (Chapter XCVI - The Try-Works). That is where, like quite a bit of the kid's dream at the end of chapter V, it comes from. On another level an argument could be made that Blood Meridian owes its own appalling aromas to Melville's book. The two books together smell like the left wing of the day of judgement. They are arguments for the pit.    

You are a full-time writer and have to earn your daily crust writing for Isidingo. How did you find time to write such a heavily researched-based novel and how long did it take to write? Was it difficult to switch between writing for television, which requires accessing the emotions of the viewers, to writing such an almost depersonalised novel?

The first draft probably took a year. From where I sit, it's often the television that looks depersonalised.

Is this country’s violent present a result of its violent origins through wars such as the one you write about in your novel?

AIt could be that the universe is a machine, in which case South Africa's present was inevitable. Alternatively, we have free will. It is impossible for us to know which scenario is real. This is, I realised in the year after I wrote The Book of War, what Blood Meridian is finally about.

Do you, like Cormac McCarthy, think that violence is the only truth at the heart of humanity?

You have more confidence in your ability to see into Mr McCarthy's mind than I have. I have confidence in neither of us in that regard.

Do you share McCarthy’s bleak world view? Is humankind base at heart? Are we no more and no less than animals battling in a struggle for survival of the fittest? Or are there a few mitigating factors to being alive?

It is not impossible, as I mentioned, that we have agency. And studying our history has taught me that we are killing each other a lot less now than we were 150 years ago. Touch wood. As I write there are tree frogs courting in strange voices and Johannesburg smells of jasmine. We live in the beating heart of a great and terrifying mystery.

If you had a choice and could focus your writing time on any genre you like, which would you concentrate on, and why?

Once I've done the money work, I have what appears be a choice. I don't generally think in terms of genre unless I'm paid to. Stories seem to present themselves at some stage if you go out into the garden and look for them. I'm interested in South Africa, how we see ourselves, how we got here.

Lastly, the dreaded question all writers hate: What are you working on at the moment? Do you have another novel in the pipeline and could you tell us a little about it?

Hush. No words.

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  • Brilliant. As someone who has delved into this history at great extent and regularly travels these areas, I seriously cannot wait to get my hands on this book. Got really excited when I stumbled upon it now.

    Off to look for it now.

    Lakeman did have a bunch of misfits, I think "misfit" is even an understatement ... lol. King was an honorable soldier and his journal is so interesting, can't wait to read this.

    Thanks to author for this book!!!!

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      warren erasmus

      Have to say that I've read Blood Meridian 3 times as well as most of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, and am reading Book of War at the moment. I am enjoying the read although it is difficult to see Mr Whyle's writing as original when I am so familiar with Meridian. The story is certainly unique to our setting in SA, but he has mimicked so much of the style and prose (often to the word) of McCarthy, that I question the writers motivation, regardless of the disclosure he offers. Seen as apart from Meridian, it is a real page turner and the descriptive prose clean and worthy. But to those familiar with and invigorated by McCarthy’s style, it shines as much as the guy who wins the 100m when Usain Bolt is not running. It's noble, brave, well motivated, well researched and a great story but it's best if you don't know McCarthy exists before you read it. However, the disclosure toward Meridian offered by Mr Whyle in the book does qualify him and it does help a great deal to position the reader familiar to McCarthy. Frankly, someone local should make a movie of Book of War because while there have been so many conundrums and complexities within Hollywood, all ending in failure thus far, over making one of Meridian, I think we are a little less encumbered culturally here. Someone should grab the opportunity. The story has claimed it's space. It now just requires standing up within it.

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