Bitter Eden – Novel by Tatamkhulu Afrika, Picador, March, 2014
(Review by Dale Boyer) Note: a version of this review appeared previously in The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review
Every once in a while a novel comes along which seems to carve out a spot for itself so effortlessly and perfectly that, in retrospect, the whole of literature seems incomplete without it. Such a work is Bitter Eden, a novel by Tatamkhulu Afrika, a South African writer (his chosen name means "Grandfather Africa") originally published in England in 2002 and only now making its way to American readers. The author died that same year, at the age of 81, shortly after the book was finally published.
Based on the author's own experience as a prisoner of war in Northern Africa during World War II, Bitter Eden tells the story of three men negotiating their emerging sexuality in an inhospitable time, and amongst the bleakest of circumstances. Tom, a young man from South Africa, meets Douglas, a fellow POW from England, and agrees to become his "mate," a word fraught with a great deal of emotion as well as consequence. Tom is initially somewhat reluctant to have anything to do with the more flamboyant Douglas, especially in a space as confined as a prisoner of war camp, and given the realities of the day-to-day choices required for survival. As he puts it: "What does put me off are his movements: the little almost dancing steps he takes even when, supposedly, he is standing still, the delicate, frenetic gestures of his hands, the almost womanliness of him that threatens to touch – and touch – and touch – and I have already told of my feelings concerning that." Right from the start, then, the narrator writes of his desire to "abort a relationship upon which [Douglas] seems ferociously intent."
That the two do, in fact, wind up becoming friends has as much to do with Tom's reluctant attraction and ambivalence about his own sexuality as it does with the mere fact that – in order to survive the prisoner of war ordeal – one has to have friends, and make certain alliances and accommodations. Some readers may be put off by the harshness of the language, as well as the brutality of the conditions the novel depicts. But these were brutal times and an era in which expressions of tenderness or affection between men were strictly limited. As novelist Andre Aciman points out quite rightly in his comments about the earlier edition, "The word love is never mentioned" in the novel. However, it is all the more powerful for never being uttered, and makes every gesture of tenderness and affection stand out like a dandelion in a coal field.
Complicating Tom's developing relationship with Douglas is the entrance of another prisoner of war, another Brit. named Danny. Unlike Douglas, Danny is fully the masculine ideal:
His hair is black, springy, tightly curled, capping his head like a Renaissance cherub's or an old Greek bust of a beautiful boy…Lower down is the body of a man who works at it – the breasts at the apex before masculinity becomes womanishness, the nipples pert and clear, the hair in the armpits tufting and lush, as lush a body-hair flowing with the flat belly down into the generous crotch, the tautly powerful thighs.
Bedding down beside Tom one cold winter night, Danny's appearance instantly causes a disruption in the uneasy relationship between Tom and Douglas:
'Is this worrying you?'
I play it dumb. 'Is what worrying me?'
'Me lying here with nothing on.
As Danny instantly adds: "'Don't get any wrong ideas. I'm married though no kid yet…and nobody gets to touch me down there,' and he gestures at his crotch. 'Only my wife.'"
After wrestling with whether to befriend Douglas – and what, exactly, that befriending would signify both to others and to himself -- the novelist is forced to truly take stock of what he feels as, night after night, Danny beds down beside him naked and they hold each other for warmth. Not surprisingly, Douglas becomes jealous of Tom and Danny's new intimacy. The jealousy he soon displays, as well as his (incorrect) assumption about their sexual intimacy, provides an effective foil to Tom, as well as a goad for him to decide what it is, in fact, he feels toward Danny. As the narrator writes: "A misshapen moon is now low in the sky. I do not know if it is rising or setting, suddenly do not even know where we are, never having been further than where we lost the war." At this point in Tom's life as he begins to have feelings for another man and is totally uncertain what to do with them or how to express them, he is literally in new territory, both geographically and metaphorically. Further complicating all the relationships is the implication that both Tom and Danny may have been abused by their fathers when they were young. This presents yet another hurdle for Tom and Danny to confront as they wrestle with their feelings for one another.
If Bitter Eden were merely the story of a reluctant gay man finally acknowledging his sexuality, that might make for a fine, if otherwise unremarkable novel. But what makes the novel so fascinating and extraordinary is the simplicity with which its meaning unfolds. Issues of gender identity, sexuality, and societal repression all arise effortlessly and organically from the setting and the events. Only after Tom is asked to play the role of a woman in the camp play (Lady Macbeth, no less!) does he allow himself to truly acknowledge what he feels toward Danny. But as he does so, the issue of masculine vs. feminine roles becomes even more clouded for both. Thus, ironically, it is only within the context of a prisoner of war camp (the "Bitter Eden" of the title), and by virtue of playing a woman's role in a play, that Tom is able to finally acknowledge his feelings for another man. Tragically and again ironically, the society outside the camp will not be nearly as tolerant, nor allow them or their relationship a place in which to flower.
For the details of life as a POW in World War II alone, Bitter Eden is an important novel. But it is so much more than that. Its depiction of the growing love between Tom and Danny is the frankest, most surprising treatment of love between two men during wartime I have ever encountered, making it not only a superb document of its time, but also ours. The novel instantly establishes itself as a classic in the gay canon. It is a novel of thrilling artistry, astonishing harshness, and great beauty. Taken together, these qualities make the novel not just important, but essential.