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Hope & Horror: Interview with 2013 Sunday Times Fiction Prize Shortlistee James Whyle

The Book of WarBy Rian Malan for the Sunday Times

Rian Malan talks to Fiction Prize finalist James Whyle about history, brutality and being inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

James Whyle grew up in the Eastern Cape. In 1980, he was conscripted into the South African army. He was discharged on the grounds of having “an immature personality with tendencies towards neurosis”, and did everything in his power to assist the authorities in arriving at this diagnosis.

Whyle has worked as an actor, writer, playwright and screenwriter. His published dramas include National Madness, an Amstel Play of the Year runner-up, and Rejoice Burning, which was commissioned by the BBC. His story, “The Story”, was chosen by JM Coetzee as winner of the 2011 Pen/Studzinski award. The Book of War, his first novel, tells the story of a child who comes of age during the Frontier wars between the British and the Xhosa.

I love books that start with ye olde-looking maps. Yours does exactly that – a skein of roads and rivers converging on a mythical village called Gatestown. But then I cracked the covers and discovered myself in what appeared to be Grahamstown circa 1850.

Ja, well. My book is a novel, but then again, it isn’t. I could have set it in Grahamstown, but then I’d have had to have East London and King Williamstown too, plus the Keiskamma and Mbashe rivers, British Kaffraria, on and on. All those names became a distraction so I simplified and fictionalised the geography.

But you grew up on ‘the border’, right? In the Amatole mountains?

My father was sent out from England, alone, aged 11, in 1906 with a shilling in his pocket. After many years he acquired a very English farm – steep grasslands, green hills, mist …

Sounds lovely, but wasn’t there a time when you had Xhosa warriors hiding in mountain kloofs while British redcoats lobbed artillery shells at them?

Ah. The robbing of the land. There is no doubt that land was taken from the Xhosa at the point of a gun. But it’s more complicated than that. Those green highlands where I grew up … you get heavy snows up there, enough to cause stock losses. And the sourveld, the grass itself, can kill cattle in winter. The Xhosa used those pastures only as summer grazing.

Jonathan Swift praises the man who can grow two blades of grass where only one grew before. My father didn’t burn veld. He seeded it with Italian rye and cocksfoot and broad red clover so he could feed his cows in winter. I have a copy of the Farmer’s Weekly with him on the cover. He had just won a prize for the Champion Beef Herd of 1958. He loved that land and now he’s buried on it, along with my older brother, who played scrumhalf for the Border rugby side that famously defeated the mighty All Blacks in 1952. So my roots go deep there, and yet … the question of the land and owning and killing for it is disturbing to me. Disturbing enough to lead me, over the years, to study histories of the Frontier wars and to ponder and write and worry about it. The Book of War is just the latest instalment.

You claim that all books are begat by other books …

Actually, it was Cormac McCarthy who said that.

But you’d agree that The Book of War was begat by, or based on, or maybe just inspired by McCarthy’s 1982 novel Blood Meridian?

Absolutely.

So what was it about McCarthy’s book that spoke to you?

Blood Meridian is a lightly fictionalised account of the depredations of the Glanton gang, a band of mercenaries hired to harvest the scalps of Native Americans in the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico in the 1840s. At first, I thought it was some insane Gothic fantasy, but when I looked closer I realised it was a retelling of things that had truly happened. McCarthy was trying to understand the place he came from. So was I. So I set forth to write something in a similar vein.

I read somewhere that Blood Meridian was itself begat by a text McCarthy found in an archive.

If a novel works it’s because, when you’re reading it, you believe it. A novel must be “fictionally true”. But to achieve that, it makes sense to build on historical foundations. One of McCarthy’s primary sources was Samuel Chamberlain, who rode with the Glanton gang in the border wars of 1846-1848. Their patron was the governor of Chihuahua, a Spanish-American aristocrat who was out to exterminate the wild and bloodthirsty Apaches. The gang soon realised that all scalps turn dark in time so they commenced to reap scalps indiscriminately, murdering Indians, Mexican villagers and Mexican soldiers for their tonsures. Chamberlain, interestingly, went on to become a general on the Union side in the Civil War.

For me, Stephen Bartlett Lakeman’s book What I saw in Kaffir-Land was a crucial source. Lakeman was an eccentric adventurer. During the 8th Frontier War (1851-53), he took it upon himself to help the British Empire by forming Lakeman’s Irregulars, a band of criminals, escaped convicts, drunkards and layabouts recruited on Cape Town’s waterfront. Lakeman supplied these men with state-of-the-art rifles, conned them onto a ship and into battle on the Eastern Frontier, where they proved to be not unsuccessful bush rangers. At the outset, their tactics were fairly conventional but later they distinguished themselves by falling on Xhosa villages at night and killing anyone they found, women and children included. Just before the peace, we find them on the heights above Fort Beaufort, boiling heads in a copper vat so that Lakeman’s friends at home can have souvenir skulls.

Oh dear. Our forebears would appear to be beyond redemption.

Console yourself with the thought that the English seldom hesitated to do similar things to each other. I’ve been reading about the ridiculous Stuart kings of England, Charles II and James, and Jeffreys, their high court judge. Judge Jeffreys hanged old ladies for harbouring wounded rebels, quartered men, women and children and impaled them on pikes.

Your prose, like McCarthy’s, is old-fashioned. It feels like reading the King James Bible, with its rolling cadences and archaic sentence structures.

I’ll take that as a compliment.

Where does this come from?

I went to an Anglican boarding school – St Andrew’s in Grahamstown. Church four times a week. Twice on Sundays. Monumental boredom. But I’ve still got this in my head: “The Lord bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you and give you peace, this night, and forever more.”

Some critics say the violence in Blood Meridian served no particular moral purpose. It just was. The same is true of your book. You seem to be saying, this is the nature of man, and the nature of war; how it was and always will be.

Genetically we are cavemen, no doubt about that. Young men are biologically designed to face the sabre-tooth tiger at the mouth of the cave. If there isn’t a tiger to fight, they’re going to drive their mothers crazy. That said, I’d argue that both books are actually about children managing to find a hint of humanity and mercy in the face of extreme adversity. In fact, this is what my MA thesis was about, so I am able to call in reinforcements should hostilities break out over this arcane issue.

You speak of trying to understand the place you come from. What did The Book of War teach you?

I think there is an ethical demand to look at your history. There is a problem with the aestheticisation of violence but, still, one should point the camera at history and let it be seen, deadpan, without moral judgment. It is not a pretty sight. I think that in colonial conflict, invader and native go about their business with equal savagery. It is technology – more advanced tools for killing – that determines the outcome.

But here’s a hopeful thought. Lakeman’s antagonist in the book is based on the Xhosa general Maqoma. In the acknowledgments, you will see the name Loyiso Maqoma. Loyiso is the great-great-grandson of the man who defeated Sir Harry Smith and ended his career. Loyiso and I worked together on a TV series and he helped me with some snippets of Xhosa. Given that 160 years ago our tribes were involved in bilateral slaughter, this seems an improvement.

  • The Book of War is published by Jacana Media

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