Hamilton Wende, House of War. Johannesburg: Penguin. Pp. 266. ISBN: 978-0-14302-609-9. ZAR181.00.[]
University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa L’École Européenne II (Woluwé), Belgium
House of War/Dar al-Harb (the Islamic name for the West) is an apt title for Hamilton Wende’s latest novel. This is a gripping tale tracing the quest of Rhodesian-born Classicist, Sebastian Burke, for the lost diaries of Alexander the Great, allegedly buried at the Temple of Ares at Ay-Khanoum (Alexandria on Oxus). Sebastian enlists the help of television reporter, Claire Finch, and her crew. Together they encounter Uzbeki assassins, ex-KGB spies, Afghani warlords, militant muslims, and the CIA. From the opening scene, the book is punctuated by extreme moments of violence which is latterly only softened by the growing love-relationship between Sebastian and Claire. For the meantime we are forced to watch as though this is a CNN report. The journalists maintain their focus and periodically dampen their fear and loneliness with recourse to beer and vodka. Wende’s own experiences as a frontline correspondent enhance his descriptions of the carnage that pursues Sebastian, as much as his portrayal of foreign bazaars and tea houses.
However, Wende is no ordinary story teller. This is not merely a crude and violent travel adventure. Through his central characters, Wende explores the amorality of war: the specious rationale for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, wrongful imprisonment and detention, censorship of the media, and the impact of the western conflict on Dar al-Islam. Not satisfied with just one sub-text, Wende gives us more. Sebastian is scarred from the last days of colonial rule in Rhodesia and his failure to protect his older brother from the ‘ters’ at the gates of their farm. Claire too has her own dark secrets.
Above all, the main narrative is punctuated by short interpolations from the life of Alexander the Great. Only gradually does the reader recognise that they are an implicit commentary on the main action of the novel (or is it that the action of the novel is a commentary on the life of Alexander?) The reader is transported from the present to a more fantastic past in which Alexander’s own excesses serve as a warning against modern-day hubris. The novel’s ending might be seen by some as anti- climactic but that is to miss the point: this is not a book about Alexander or the war in Afghanistan. The last words of the liber de morte offer us the necessary clue: ‘As he lay dying, his life slipping away, Roxane leaned over him and closed his eyes with a touch of her lips. Then, as his strength failed, she gently touched her lips to his to catch his fleeing soul.’ Claire is Sebastian’s Roxane. Through her, he casts aside a lifetime of loneliness and regrets to find forgiveness and salvation in this life.
At times Wende can be more Diodorus Siculus than Plutarch of Chaeronea in unveiling his erudition but this does not detract from a well-crafted and relevant story. Classicists who want to know what it means to make the ancient world relevant to the modern (or vice versa) would do worse than to start with this as a model. Long-listed for the South African fiction title of the year, this is one book that should definitely be on your Christmas list.
[] For the author's book-launch video see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2drt2yfSp8.