The book of war tells 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 Minie 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 deuement 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 intense defamiliarisation of 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 in The Book of War.
James Whyle is a playwright, a director, and the cofounder of the Take Away Shakespeare Company. His plays were performed at the Hilton Festival, the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg, and the National Arts Festival. He is also the author of two radio plays for the BBC: Dancing with the Dead and A Man Called Rejoice. He is the recipient of the Pen/Studzinski Short Story Award for The Story.