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Q&A: James Whyle Speaks About Violence, War and Cormac McCarthy

The Book of WarBy Melissa de Villiers for the Sunday Times

Whyle’s debut novel The Book of War is an extraordinary tale set in the Cape during the Xhosa Wars. It’s 1851, an ambitious young British captain arrives on the eastern frontier. His adversary is the strategically brilliant Xhosa general, Jinqi; his platoon, a ragtag bunch of convicts, sailors and drunkards, along with an illiterate teenager known only as “the kid”.

Your take on the conflict that follows is bloody, but utterly compelling. How much of it is true?

Quite a bit. In first-hand accounts by Stephen Bartlett Lakeman and William Ross King, I found harrowing accounts of atrocities on both sides. That’s the heart of the book. I knew from the beginning that that was what I had to try and deal with.

I understand the original inspiration came from Cormac McCarthy’s epic Western, Blood Meridian?

Absolutely. In that book, a teenage protagonist joins a band of mercenaries hired by a Mexican governor to return Apache scalps at $100 apiece. What I found extraordinary, though, was how it views the invading European and the Native American impartially. McCarthy’s narrator appears to stand outside of political frameworks. Humans are not just equal, they’re equally barbarous.

We tend to be shown South African history through two contrasting lenses. One gives us the heroic Great Trek and the manifest destiny of the Afrikaner and white settler. The other shows a noble, intrinsically democratic African culture laid waste by the greed of colonial empires. McCarthy’s take seemed more realistic.

The Book of War has passages of almost hallucinatory violence, and savage characters. It evokes a disturbing vision of South Africa’s bloody origins. Did you set out wanting to explore why this is a violent country?

One of the pleasures of writing a book is finding out what the hell it means. That said, I have come to regard South Africa and its history as a biological process – the mingling of a number of intrinsically violent cultures. Culture being an aspect of biology.

Your use of language is interesting. You don’t use the obvious words readers might expect in a work of this kind – veldskoen, sjambok, and so on. Characters talk about “wolves” and “tigers”. It has the unsettling effect of defamiliarising a historical past we think we know.

Well, I knew that any hint of Wilbur Smith had to be avoided. And my sources said “wolf” where Smith would say “hyena”. Of course, there is one word from that period which I could not use, and in a way the book is an examination of why one can’t use it. And that is the Arabic word for heathen. It crops up, in a plural form, in the subheading for chapter XVII: “Provenance of the Kuffar”.

Your father fought in World War 1, something you wrote about in your 2002 BBC radio play, ‘Dancing with the Dead’. As a conscript, you were discharged by the SADF after pretending to go mad. You wrote about this in your 1981 play , National Madness. Is war a theme you’ve always felt drawn to explore?

I don’t know about always. I grew up among women, in very gentle environments. But I am drawn to write about my own experiences. Being human, one experiences violence. And ever since I learnt that we lie to ourselves about history, I’ve been pondering, and reading about, the history of the region where I grew up, the Eastern Cape. Which is bloody.

You’ve been an actor and written for the stage and screen. Your day job is writing for Isidingo. Has it been a smooth transition from soap to literary fiction?

The road to publication has been long and rocky. And there is no transition as yet. I still, thankfully, write for Isidingo. But all the work you do informs other work. When you write TV or screenplays, you place yourself imaginatively in a landscape and “see” the scene like a camera. This tends to make your natural point of view, like McCarthy’s, cinematic. In this book, I was interested in presenting, without authorial comment, the action of the war. Elmore Leonard said: “Let the dialogue speak for itself.”

  • The Book of War is published by Jacana

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