James Whyle Speaks to Maureen Isaacson at the Launch of The Book of War
James Whyle’s debut novel, The Book of War, was launched at Love Books in Johannesburg last Thursday. Set in the late 19th century Eastern Cape, The Book of War paints a portrait of the landscape of the time – a mixture of “unspoilt” nature and tainted socio-political dynamics.
Whyle was in conversation with Maureen Isaacson, described by Love Books’ Kate Rogan as one of the few people in South Africa who can still be regarded as a literary critic. Isaacson began by providing an eloquent introduction to the award-winning short story writer and playwright’s first novel.
“The Book of War is set in the eighth Frontier War, The War of Mlanjeni, or the War of the Prophet that was fought in the hinterland near Fort Beaufort from 1850 to 1853 in the Eastern Cape,” explained Isaacson. “The Frontier Wars spanned a hundred year period that the British took the grazing land of the Xhosas. James Whyle takes us right up to the interface between animal and human skin, where war and the beauty of nature meet. In this gorgeous landscape, the blood, the sun, the plants, the plumbago, provide a rich commentary of the savagery of war. This is a reflection of history and its re-writing and also a reflection of human nature. It is also a commentary of the failure of the British who came to knock sense into the ‘heathens’ to observe even the most primitive form of the Geneva Convention or any semblance of humanitarian law, hence you will read about groans and moans and shallow graves and the sorrow that the missionaries brought with their Bibles and the way the Empire stole from the locals of the Eastern Cape their beautiful land and took away their peace of mind forever.”
After answering a series of challenging questions from Isaacson, Whyle read a humourous passage from The Book of War, which involves the Provost Marshall finding a drunken villain in a compromising position with a cow. Whyle explained that a parallel incident occurred in his experience at the engineer school in Kroonstad. Said Isaacson of the sometimes crude characters in Whyle’s novel, “They commit all manner of crimes with poetic flair, or at least their deeds are told with poetic flair which makes it all tolerable.” She then identified four different segments of writing and asked which Whyle had preferred to write – the blood, the beauty of the landscape, the sham religion, or the historical fact.
Whyle said he had been enormously influenced by so-called post-apocalyptic writer Cormac McCarthy. Reading McCarthy offered him many things, including how to view history, to deliver first person accounts and to put a camera in the landscape. Whyle said that he did not want to write from the viewpoint of white liberal guilt or from black woundedness as neither is authentic.
Isaacson concluded by raising the issue of intertextuality in The Book of War; of “books eating books”. According to Whyle, “The book is entirely derivative and I would claim it is also entirely original. In the manner of entangled particles.”
The discussion then opened to the floor and offered a final, resounding comment from literary rock star, Rian Malan: “I have recently read a lot about Bob Dylan who did not plagiarise or parody people, he borrowed their essence and gave it back to you in a form where we were all gobsmacked and this man has done a similar thing. He loved McCarthy like Bob Dylan loved Woody Guthrie.”