Latest Review of House of War by Janet van Eeden in LitNet
The author of House of War, Hamilton Wende, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

Janet van Eeden

2009-09-23 Druk dit/Print it E-pos hierdie skakel/E-mail this link

Hamilton Wende has written a fast-paced thriller, full of intrigue and action, to rival the best thriller novels out there. Its subject matter is internationally topical, set in war-torn Afghanistan, and yet its roots are firmly embedded in Southern African soil.

Sebastian is a troubled man. While he is growing up in the bush war of pre-democratic Rhodesia, a traumatic incident in his childhood leaves him with an indelible scar. He finds solace in his work, concentrating on the life of Alexander the Great in his postgraduate studies at WITS. To avoid thinking about the past he makes it his life’s quest to find Alexander’s elusive Royal Diaries which were apparently buried at an ancient temple site in Northern Afghanistan. He sets out to find the remains of the temple with a documentary film crew headed up by the hard-bitten American journalist Claire. On their way to the site it is soon apparent that they are being followed and their lives are at risk. Not all of them make it out alive, and in the end they don’t bring back exactly what they wanted. But in the final analysis both Claire and Sebastian return with so much more than they could ever have hoped for.

House of War is an excellent read with the perfect balance of historical background and fast-paced modern action. It’s a novel which combines the tenderness of first-time lovers with the harsh realities of guerrilla warfare. Wende has achieved the rare feat of successfully marrying the past with the present to create a page-turning thriller. JvE 

JvE: The story's main protagonist is Sebastian: a man on a quest to find out whether there really was a temple built by Alexander the Great in war-torn Afghanistan. Lured by a university professor's chance discovery of a piece of parchment which was ostensibly from the Royal Diaries of Alexander, Sebastian is lured to risk all by travelling to Afghanistan in yet another one of the brutal periods in its history. This novel seems to have been born out of a lot of research. How did the story come about? Have you always been fascinated by the classics in general and Alexander the Great's story in particular?

HW: In 2001, only weeks after 9/11, I found myself on a steep hillside alongside a T-54 tank dug in on the front lines with the Northern Alliance troops. Below us was a wide gravel plain that stretched to the horizon where the Taliban had their front lines. A clear, cold river ran through the no-man’s-land between us. The sound of gunfire echoed sporadically through the autumn air. One of the Northern Alliance soldiers, completely unconcerned about the gunfire, banged his fist on what seemed to be an ordinary chunk of rock between us. "Iskander," he said loudly while banging on the rock. "Iskander."

At first I couldn’t understand what he was getting at. Then, suddenly, it dawned on me: that chunk of brown rock was part of the remains of an ancient Greek ruin from the days of Alexander the Great. He was reaching out to me, trying to share something of his pride in his homeland and its ancient history. It was an extraordinary moment of human solidarity. I wanted to pause and try to speak to him through our interpreter, but there was a real war going on around us and we had journalistic deadlines to meet, so I couldn’t spend any time with him. I snapped a few photographs of him and the front lines and then we had to rush off to film something else.

Some months later I returned to Johannesburg. I couldn’t forget that Afghan soldier and his proud, insistent "Iskander, Iskander." Because of him I began to research the history of Alexander in Afghanistan. One morning I found an old copy of Scientific American from 1982 in the Wits University library. It was perhaps the last scholarly article on Afghan archaeology written since the Soviet invasion, about the discovery of a lost city founded by Alexander the Great in Northern Afghanistan called Ay Khanoum. I flipped through the pages, and … it hit me like a bolt from the blue: The cliff face in an old black-and-white photograph in Scientific American was the same cliff face as in one of my photographs from the front lines. I had been to Ay Khanoum without even knowing it.

Call it fate, synchronicity, chance, but the threads of the Moirai are spun deep and wide indeed. I had my story - thanks to that Afghan soldier and his insistence that morning on the front lines in dragging me out of my fear and showing me something that I would never have discovered without him. Now all I needed to do was to find Claire and Sebastian, Abdulov, Mahmood and the others to go on the fictional journey with me.

JvE: Sebastian is driven by a deep sense of guilt from his past to pursue an almost irrational quest. His guilt comes from an incident which took place during the Rhodesian bush wars. I was intrigued by the authenticity of his flashbacks to his past. Did you grow up in what was then Rhodesia yourself? And is any of that story based on actual events in your life?

HW: Very interesting question. I didn't grow up in Rhodesia, and I visited it only once, when I was five years old, but I had cousins there and the country and its war made a huge impression on me while I was growing up. As it turns out, I visited independent Zimbabwe quite frequently in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so I knew I had a "feel" for the landscape and the people. But I had to imagine Sebastian's past. I was quite nervous at first about whether I could actually do that, but the notion of Sebastian growing up in Rhodesia wouldn't leave me. I suppose on some level there is a deliberate parallel that fascinated me about the end of white colonial rule in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and the beginning of a neo-colonial NATO/American war in Afghanistan.

The Rhodesian element was ultimately hugely creatively satisfying, as it is a creative challenge to imagine other people's lives and not merely write based on your own life’s experience. I was quite pleased that when Wilbur Smith agreed to review the manuscript, he was convinced that I did grow up there. I felt that I’d succeeded with imagining Sebastian's life! So, no, none of Sebastian's childhood is based on events of my own life – I made it all up!

JvE: Claire, the television journalist who decides to accompany Sebastian to the supposed site of the temple, is accurately drawn. Have you ever been a journalist yourself or did you base her character, as well as Rob's and Jeremy's, on research too?

HW: Claire is also an interesting character for me, as I have been a journalist for 25 years now and a great number of her experiences are based on mine. I was also born in Buffalo, USA and have spent quite a bit of time there in the past, as well as living in New York City. Much of Claire's life is familiar to me. Creating her was a writing challenge as I always think it can be difficult for a man to write from the point of view of a woman and vice versa. So creating her as a journalist gave me a solid foundation to imagine her life as a woman.

JvE: The novel is full of high action. In fact, it kicks off with a bang and we are into a bloody murder scene in the opening pages. (I have to add, though, that although the novel is action-packed, there was a tender love story in the midst of war-torn Afghanistan which I found captivating.) Did you set out to write a page-turning thriller, or did you find that the story just took you in that direction?

HW: I set out to write a page-turning thriller, but I always knew I wanted it to be a love story too. The parallels with the present-day thriller and with the love life and journey of conquest of Alexander and Roxane were something of a wonderful surprise as my research into Alexander's life grew. One of the most exciting things about writing this book was that I knew the landscape of Afghanistan, Rhodesia, Congo, New York and so on, but I wasn't sure how the characters journeys would turn out. It was tremendous fun - although often hard work too - to start writing every day and find the story slowly but surely unfolding for me. One of the things I learned in writing this book was to trust the subconscious and the direction it led me in.

JvE: Please tell me a bit about your background. Have you always wanted to write? And what gave you the incentive to get this done right now? 

HW: I studied English and Drama and Film at Wits before travelling and living in Japan and the States. I came back to live in South Africa in 1991 after Nelson Mandela's release and have been based here ever since - despite some fairly long trips to Europe, all over Africa and the Middle East - and, of course, Afghanistan! This is my sixth book to date.

To answer the question about writing: I've always written since my late teens, starting with some dreadful poems in a black notebook! I love writing and will always do so, I hope.

JvE: Do you have plans for a next novel? Do you see yourself still writing novels ten years from now or do you see a different future for yourself?

HW: I definitely have plans for a next novel - I've started it as we speak. It will be similar in concept to House of War, but it will be about child soldiers and fear and courage and looking back deep into our past through the mythology of the lion. I've got an idea for the one after that too!

Hamilton Wende

Hamilton Wende is a freelance writer and television producer. He is a regular contributor to From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4 on the BBC. He has also contributed to the BBC World Service programme Letter. He is a columnist for The Star in Johannesburg and his articles have appeared in many international and South African newspapers and magazines, including National Geographic Traveler, The Chicago Tribune, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg, and many others.

He has been a guest on The Editors on the SABC and a guest lecturer at the Department of Journalism at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, the Creative Writing Department at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand, at the Durban Institute of Technology, the Cape Town Press Club, and the Muthaiga Club in Nairobi. He has also appeared on a number of radio and television programmes, including MSNBC, SABC TV, AM Live,and on Radio 702.
He has written six books:

  • House of War: a love story and thriller about searching for the lost diaries of Alexander the Great in the badlands of northern Afghanistan while being hunted by Al Qaeda. (Penguin, 2009)
  • The King’s Shilling: a novel about WWI in East Africa. It has been on the bestseller lists in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and was long-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Award in 2006. (Jacana, April 2005)
  • Deadlines from the Edge: Images of War from Congo to Afghanistan: stories about his journeys into different parts of the world while working as television news producer in different parts of Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. (Penguin SA, 2003)
  • True North: African Roads Less Travelled: a non-fiction account of his work as a journalist in Africa. It was nominated for the 1995 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. (William Waterman, Johannesburg, 1995)
  • The Quagga’s Secret: a children’s picture book he wrote, which was selected as one of the 1995 South African Books of the Year by Jay Heale of Bookchat. In 1999 it was selected by Cambridge University Press in South Africa for an anthology of South African writing. (Gecko Books, Durban, 1995)
  • Msimangu’s Words (as co-author): a young adults novel. It was a finalist in the Young Africa Awards 1992. (Maskew Miller Longman, 1996)

In television he has worked for a number of international networks, including CNN, BBC, NBC, ABC (Australia), SBS (Australia), NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) Al Jazeera English and a number of others. He has covered fifteen different wars in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The countries he has worked in include Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Angola, Sudan, Eritrea, Kuwait, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan.

Journey Into Darkness, a documentary on the genocide in Rwanda he worked on for the BBC with producer David Harrison and correspondent Fergal Keane, won the 1994 Royal Television Society’s International Current Affairs Award. A Life Less Fortunate, a film on children in South African prisons he worked on with Belinda Hawkins of SBS, won the 1999 United Nations Association of Australia Media Award.

Hamilton Wende graduated from Wits University in Johannesburg in 1984 with a BA, majoring in English and sub-majoring in Legal Theory and Drama and Film. He spent the years after that travelling through Europe, the US and Japan. He studied part-time courses in writing and journalism at New York University. He lived in Japan and the US, where he worked as a freelance writer and English teacher. He returned to South Africa in the early 1990s.