By any account, to entitle a début novel The Book of War can seem presumptuous. Yet, the book (published by Jacana Media in 2012) brilliantly lives up to the promise of its ambitious name. For war is everywhere here – but not romanticised with the usual bravery, indestructible friendship and clear divide between the camps of good and evil that justify the violence. No. In a sober style made out of short sentences, hand-picked words and balanced rhythm Whyle shows war for what it really is. A physical ordeal against nature and fellow humans. A defeat of minds and souls. A horror of which the only beauty lays in the vast, unspoiled landscape it is set in. From this ocean of brutality paradoxically emerges a subtle tale that reads as an engaging reflection on manhood and humanity.
Coming of age
Few people remember the ferocious conflict that opposed European settlers to the Xhosa nation in a territory today known as the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Successive “Cape Frontiers Wars” were waged during the major part of the 19th century to expand the eastern boundary of the colony in a context of ever-changing alliances between the settlers, the different Xhosa tribes and the British army. This guerilla-type conflict over the possession of the land – an issue that is still haunting South Africa today – bred atrocities from each side, in particular through the recruitment of common-law criminals in the British ranks.
“The Kid”, the novel’s main character, is a young member of a group of such “irregulars”: thugs who mostly enrolled to avoid prison. Little is said about the kid’s past. About his future, a gloomy promise comes from the mouth of a disordered missionary in one of the catchy scenes the novel is sparked with. “The wrath of God lies sleeping and it’s not their land or ours” the man predicts from the dark corner of a dusty shack bar. “The wrath of God was hid a thousand years before men were and it waited for you to wake it. Hell is not half full yet. Not half.” In a typical construction of the narrative, the book then relates the kid’s harsh coming of age in this hell on earth that is war.
Style is central to Whyle’s literary endeavour. Succession of sober, low-key, almost too simple sentences contrast with the sudden outburst of longer constructions, giving to violence and suffering a nearly physical presence. “Herrid hauled Waine up against a gun carriage and bound his wrists to a spoke. He pulled up Waine’s jacket to expose hairy flesh. He unbuckled his belt and withdrew it from its holdings. He wound the buckle end twice around his right hand. He placed his feet for purchase and swung the leather up into the sky and dragged it down again” the author writes about one of the irregulars’ punishment. “There was a sound like a gunshot and a weal of red grew across Waine’s ribs and he roared. He jerked back against the thong at his neck and bounced forward again and his forehead split against the metal rim of the wheel. Blood dripped onto a dusty spoke.”
Scalpel-sharp in his descriptions of brutality, Whyle’s writing can also show moments of pure beauty – and often so in the most unexpected circumstances. “The world was pale and dim and ice fell like stones from the sky. It bounced off the ground and off the men’s heads and they cowered in their blankets and dodged about and shouted” he narrates of a particularly grim awakening, splendidly carrying on: “they appeared like apparitions, like ancient lunatics, snowy of brow and gibbering and cursing as the hail pelted them in the fog.” This impalpable injection of poetry in the most cruel circumstances is sometimes reminiscent of Cormac Mc Carthy, a clear inspiration for Whyle who discloses its indebtedness to the American author at the end of the book.
No time is lost in explanation about the conflict, its general context or its consequences in the novel. Action is at its purest; a chronology of raw facts unfolds without perceptible logic. Doubts are the privilege of educated officers. “It seems to me that sometimes we are more like revengeful pursuers hunting down poor fugitive slaves than men going forth to meet with men and fight out disputed rights in fair play” observes a captain in his diary. For the others, as the kid, war is just a twist of fate, another demonstration of the absurdity of their destiny. The irregulars barely question their lot; the kid maybe less than any other – which perhaps explains why he is still wandering the same pastures years later. “He looks like one indigenous to that landscape. He can kill or not kill. He is a pilgrim and an exile and a returnee.”