A hatred of war that leads to its writing
HE DOES not like war or any form of militarism. He ran away from the apartheid army. When that didn’t work, James Whyle got himself discharged from it on the grounds of insanity. Then he went on to write wrote a play about his experiences, National Madness. Furthermore, he acted in it — and for years off the stage — as himself. For years.
You’d think he’d done with matters military yet now, years on, he’s written a book about the army, this time the British.
The Book of War (Jacana) is set in the Eastern Cape during the Xhosa Wars. The action occurs during the Eighth Frontier War, also called the War of Mlanjeni or the War of the Prophet.
The novel, for that is what it is, although it is based on historical fact, takes us deep into the forested Amatole Mountains from 1850 to 1853. There, a handful of men whom the Captain has gathered together in Cape Town, a rag-tag bunch called "the irregulars" by Whyle, deploy the revolutionary new Minié Minie rRifle.
It was described as the most effective killing machine available to the British at the time. Whyle’s Captain sets out to prove its ruthless usefulness against the Xhosa.
The story, in a nutshell, concerns the coming of age of an illiterate, uneducated 15-year-old European boy, called only "the kid", (15) who is left stranded in the Cape. He joins up for a square meal, alongside convicts, sailors and drunkards.
From the get-go I wonder if he survives the war with a shred of humanity left in him, for the brutality is sickening.
Whyle agrees this is so: "I found harrowing accounts of atrocities on both sides. That is the heart of the book."
Whyle grew up in the Amatole Mountains and has been reading about the history of the Eastern Cape for years, notably books by Jeff Peires and Noel Mostert. Add to that his Whyle’s passion about the writings of American US author Cormac McCarthy, particularly his book, Blood Meridian.
"When I first read it, I thought it was a gothic fantasy, but it was a first-hand account of the American War, which happened 100 years before McCarthy was born," says Whyle in his sometimes musical, sometimes gruff, actor’s voice.
It’s melodic when he’s quoting Shakespeare, notably King Lear, which he often bursts into throughout our interview, and gruff when he’s discussing the nature of man.
From the moment he began his book, he decided that it would be, "scattered, fertilised, with phrases and sentences and images and echoes and ideas and jokes from Blood Meridian", as he writes in his disclosure.
It also draws from first-hand accounts by Sir Stephen Bartlett Lakeman, commander of the Waterkloof Rangers and William Ross King of the 74th Highlanders, about the Frontier Wars.
"Digging into King and Lakeman, I was surprised at the level of atrocity they described. Lakeman essentially admits to going into a Xhosa village at night and killing women and children. Yet, the Xhosa never did that.",’ says Whyle.
In his the book, the attack by the Captain on a pretty village of huts, evening fires burning, children playing, is a bloodbath with babies heads smashed open on rocks, dying women raped, and children’s throats cut.
In 2004, then president Thabo Mbeki quoted from Lakeman, saying adding that the latter had admitted he ordered his men to boil the severed heads of the Xhosa "for scientific interest".
This, too, is in Whyle’s book: "The kid looked down again and the scum on the vat’s surface bubbled and foamed and a grey shedding face appeared there and stared out gravely…".
In addition to not giving names to several of his characters — there’s the God-struck lieutenant, the disordered missionary, a joiner (carpenter) — Whyle says he stuck to the language his characters used at the time.
They talk about "wolves and tigers". The "Dutch" don’t wear veldskoene or carry sjamboks.
There is one word he refuses to employ, using "the heathen" instead; only once does he use the word’s plural, "kuffar".
"It bothers me that words can become so toxic."
Words are Whyle’s life. He was officer material as an apartheid conscript when, during his interview at the end of basic training, he told the major: "I’d rather wear dog s**hit on my shoulder than the state president’s commission".
Not long afterwards he headed for the hills — well, Swaziland, then realised it was a bad idea and opted for insanity instead: "Going for mad was quite common at the time", he says.
Within a week of being admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Bloemfontein military hospital, they handed him a certificate that declared he was, "emotionally immature with tendencies towards neurosis" and sent him home.
After National Madness — "the first anti-army play, it became quite famous" — he appeared in Darrell Roodt’s films, , Place of Weeping and The Stick, before deciding he was "a limited actor".
So he wrote poetry, short stories and was a freelance journalist before deciding it didn’t pay and began writing TV scripts. He’s done that for the TV series Isidingo since it began but has also written radio dramas commissioned by the BBC, including, A Man Called Rejoice. His screenplay for the film, Otelo Burning, which premiered here in May this year, has been nominated for the Africa Movie Academy Awards. His short story, The Story, was chosen by JM Coetzee as winner of the 2011 last year’s Pen/Studzinski competition.
So, Whyle can write, something author Rian Malan attests to on the cover of The Book of War: "A very good book, possibly great." But, Whyle’s day job remains writing scripts for Isidingo. He mentions that his wife, Heidi Kruger, the manager of communications for a large company, corporate, "earns more than me".
He chuckles, quotes King Lear, digressing once more as he does so often has throughout our discussion, and comes back to his debut novel.
Initially, his disclosure went "crimes of plagiarism have been committed". He had been given an advance from a publisher for it, but it came back from the publisher’s readers with: "Given the questions about plagiarism, I wouldn’t publish it. In fact, the book is k*k."
This is one of Whyle’s favourite words so he is probably exaggerating.
He quotes Cormac McCarthy: "The ugly fact is that books are made out of books" and says: "So Cormac copied Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and I copied both of them."
When he gets writer’s block he googles lines for inspiration, for example from Shakespeare, which he reworks, and that helps him move on. When he googles some more, he comes across "lines that I have used and reworked, and I find they have been attributed to me!"
He emphasises, which is totally unnecessary given his background, that his novel is, "not an expression of a great love of war. I am not keen on it but I do think that we (man) are violent apes. War is natural to us. We are, by nature, animals and war is as much a facet of nature as are forests."