The Book of War
James Whyle takes on the war genre with an eloquent narrative and a command of language and style that captures the fragility and bleakness of the time. There is no doubt that Whyle is a masterful storyteller.
The Book of Wartells the story of a boy who comes to manhood in a war. William Kentridge has called it, "a rare feast", and Rian Malan, "a very good book, possibly great."
An illiterate European child is stranded on the southern tip of Africa. The British and the Xhosa have been spilling each other's blood for eighty years and the kid signs up for the conflict in the hope of steady meals and a few shillings a month.
The kid's new commander, The Captain, is hardly more than a boy himself, but he has money and education behind him. His goal is to prove that the revolutionary MiniÌÎÌ_ Rifle is the most effective killing machine available to the British Empire. His instruments are an assortment of convicts, sailors and drunkards culled from the port at the Cape of Good Hope; his adversary, a strategically brilliant Xhosa general with little left to lose.
The Captain and the irregulars depart on a journey towards a grotesque dÌÎÌ_nouement around a copper vat on the slopes of Mount Misery. They move through a landscape prowled by wild beasts, a landscape so savage that the mountains themselves are like "ancient artefacts whose listed purpose is slaughter". As they travel, the distinction between man and animal becomes increasingly blurred.
Although it is based closely on first-hand accounts of the 8th Xhosa War, the book creates the effect of an intensedefamiliarisationof a history educated South Africans will believe themselves to be au fait with. It converts the bare facts of times past into something terrible and strange. Anyone who has asked themselves why South Africa is a violent country will find a disturbing answer inThe Book of War.
About the Author
James Whylegrew up in the Amatole Mountains of the Eastern Cape. Conscripted into the apartheid army, he was discharged on the grounds of insanity. He did everything in his power to assist the authorities in arriving at this diagnosis. His play about the experience,National Madness, has been called "a simple, subtle and frequently satirical portrait of the condition of militarism". It was performed at the Market and Baxter theatres and published inMarket Plays.
Whyle has published poetry, short stories and journalism. His radio dramas, commissioned by the BBC, includeA Man Called Rejoicewhich was published asRejoice Burningin the UK inNew South African Plays. His screenplay for the filmOtelo Burninghas been nominated for achievement in screenplay by the Africa Movie Academy Awards. His story,The Story, was chosen by JM Coetzee as winner of the 2011 Pen/Studzinski competition.
Author James Whyle
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