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Novels about war, like novels about all-boys schools, are usually as much about male bonding as they are about war or growing up. In this regard, Tatamkhulu Afrika’s Bitter Eden (Picador), which is set in a series of WWII POW camps, fits the mold. But this autobiographical novel—first published in 2002, when Afrika was 82—also reshapes the mold by incorporating the subject of art. Afrika died shortly after Bitter Eden’s publication. His death notwithstanding, he accomplished all the above, and considerably more, through Bitter Eden’s central character, Tom—an accomplishment that in many ways does indeed merit the “modern classic” badge which Picador has slapped on this reprint.
Tom is Bitter Eden’s narrator as well as its central character. He is a South African intelligence officer who is quick to admit he’s “no hero” and “by nature a loner.” His loner stance is upset, however, when a fellow prisoner named Douglas insinuates himself into Tom’s life. “I can’t help how I am,” Douglas prevaricates, “ I have got this way of moving and speaking, and I have got this way of caring about people … But I have a wife and son whom I try not to think about all the time hoping … I get back to them one day.”
So, though the masculine Tom is initially repulsed by Douglas’s feminine nature, he needs Douglas as much as all the men in the Italian and German prison camps need a buddy to get by, to survive. Together Tom and Douglas forge an enterprise by which they pick up, wash, dry and deliver laundry for their camp mates in return for Red Cross cigarettes and Red Cross food. And because Tom is intelligent, he begins to have a kind of respect for Douglas as, over time, he can’t help but notice Douglas’s own share of considerable smarts. In this scene, for instance:
one of the others …irritably asks why the “Ities” can never do anything without kicking up such a fucking fuss, and Douglas rather meanderingly says that the little dark ones are from the south and the taller, paler ones … are from the north and the two are as different from one another as vinegar from wine. Which is a rather refreshing variation of the usual chalk-and-cheese cliché and again the gears are shifting in my brain.
It is thus through the art of language, as much as through the art of business and survival, that Tom begins to give Douglas his due and, perhaps more importantly, to allow light into his loner’s mind. Cracks begin to form in his veneer of male stoicism.
Time goes by and Tom and Douglas soon become embroiled in a lover’s triangle, however self-conflicted and/or in varying states of denial the lovers in that triangle may be. And now the subject of art comes on with even fuller force. The triangle begins to take shape when Tom finds a more acceptable (i.e., more masculine) mate in Danny. While Danny is initially repulsed by Tom’s participation in a stage play, the now more open-minded Tom reminds him, “This is a prison, pal, and you live and let live; and you entertain yourself as best you can or go mad; and if a poof can put on a play better than you can, then you let the poof do it ….” Danny may not agree, but his attraction and growing attachment to Tom leads him, at the very least, to curb his protestations.
Douglas in turn is threatened by Danny, and Danny himself is further chagrined when Tom accepts yet another role—this time as Lady Macbeth! In the end, Tom is triumphant in the part, Danny is unwittingly proud of him, and the two men grow closer, emotionally as well as physically and sexually. Art—whether it’s the art of “women’s work” that Tom and Douglas perfect through their laundry enterprise, or the art of acting through which Tom, not unlike Lady Macbeth, unsexes himself—renders us amorphous, and amorphousness in Bitter Eden leads to a loosening of the expectations surrounding traditional sex roles, expectations which are all too often a major source of homophobia.
To my mind, there are only two aspects of Bitter Eden that may keep the novel from being a full-fledged “modern classic.” The first is the over-the-top language Afrika uses to convey the harsh conditions of the camps. It is a vocabulary full of words like “horror” and “terror,” and it isn’t helped any by phrases like “lattices of pain” and “my knotting body’s unending scream.” The other problem is Douglas’s descent into madness as he loses Tom to Danny. The descent is a little melodramatic. On the other hand, Afrika was clever enough to foreshadow Douglas’s instability from the start and it’s not hard to imagine—is it?—that POW camps were nexuses of high drama. So I, for one, am willing to go with it. My final recommendation is that interested readers wade through the over-the-top language—which is concentrated at the beginning of the novel, anyway—because the payoff is worth it, even if—reader beware!—Bitter Eden’s dénouement is not for those in search of happy ending.
By Tatamkhulu Afrika
Hardcover, 9781250043665, 240 pp.