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James Whyle Explains How Cormac McCarthy Influenced The Book of War

The Book of WarLitnet’s Janet van Eeden interviewed James Whyle, author of The Book of War, and reviewed the book, calling it “a masterpiece of exquisite prose”.

Whyle explains how Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian inspired him to look up first hand accounts of South African wars that had occurred over a hundred years ago:

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.)

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