April 2014

-bookslut

fiction

Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika

Review by Michael Carroll

"Why so violent a hate if nothing is there?" is a question our narrator asks himself amid this novel's starkly evoked atmosphere of suspicion, paranoia, degradation, and human savagery.

Not knowing the story's full context, you'd be forgiven for taking this bit of introspection as one of his musings on the armed conflict blowing up all around him, rather than as one of his (and our) many confusions over the uneasy, jealousy-fraught relationship in which the hero and another young soldier find themselves stranded as a matter of individual survival. Bitter Eden is about love and war, but within its microcosmic and occasionally mobile setting, it is also a novel of manners, and it has a number of inscrutably polite English characters to boot. Its humor -- yes, that too! -- comes in quick, queasy waves combining scatology and lovers' quarrels in scenes that queerly parody and skewer the pretensions of peacetime civilization. It's as though J.M. Coetzee has gone to the great cocktail party in the sky where he meets Genet, and together the two decide to collaborate. (It would be equally interesting to watch Cormac McCarthy, that stalwart literary purveyor of male-driven brutality in literature, train a keen eye on the erotic secrets of the forced homo-social conditions inherent to the battling and the settling. How was the West also won?)

Tatamkhulu Afrika's final work (published here for the first time but elsewhere, including Britain, in 2002), Bitter Eden is a late-life recreation of events Afrika lived through as a prisoner in wartime Italy and Germany -- and a wholly credible, grittily realistic story it is. Yet its greatest revelation is his narrator's unflinching, electron-microscope examination of what men packed together have to do to survive the horrors of starvation, disease, bedbugs, nasty hygiene, and the regular witnessing of murder by their captors. Sergeant Thomas Aloysius Smythe, among his fellow prisoners, simplifies his name to Tom Smith, an initial stroke of near-anonymity in circumstances so humbling it's nothing to get vomit or the contents of your neighbor's bowels all over you.

The title of Bitter Eden is a paradoxical approximation of Tom Smith's attitude toward his ongoing captive hell and his gradual erotic self-discovery. Sent from his home country of South Africa to the North African theater, he is betrayed by a higher-ranking officer and handed over to the Italians (crudely, the "Ites"), to be sent to the first in his series of POW camps, where begins his appalling journey through stages of cruelty and filth relieved occasionally by flashes of tetchy (yet sexless) romance and junctures of unexpected wit. And there begins an often campy passion play, beginning with his immediate falling in with Douglas, a swishy, "mothering" Catholic Brit who wipes from Tom's boot the blood and gore of a corpse he's stepped into during deployment:

"I can't help how I am. I have got this way of moving and speaking, and I have got this way of caring about people. That's why I became a male nurse and why I was glad to get into H.Q. and handle files instead of guns. But I have a wife and son whom I try not to think about all the time and I'm hoping that these," and he flips the beads, "will see to it that I get back to them one day."

"So?" I ask, fending him off, but sensing I'm going to lose.

"So I'm a talking fool who was hoping to find, at least, a friend to go with me into God knows how many years yet of this," and he gestures about the truck with those too graceful hands.

"So do you want me to sit somewhere else from now on?"

"It's OK," I say, my voice curt and dismissive...

There is tenderness ("He your mate?"), and there is spooning and the sharing of blankets. Also, there is the nearby chronic masturbator to put up with who's "sickeningly obscene. Lying on his side, jerking and whimpering like a ridden-over dog, he sometimes milks that pitiful cock twice in one day," observes Tom. "Even between wanks, he's juggling his balls or fiddling with his foreskin, his mood petulant as a kid that wants to play after the other kid's called it a day, and I say to Douglas that, Jesus, this has got to stop, and he says, no, to leave the 'poor man' alone because he's seen this before and it's like a disease." (Later, after flashing himself to the Italian guards, the onanist is sent to an asylum, where he can wank endlessly and do no further harm.)

It is Douglas who, when Tom is down with dysentery, washes out his shorts in seawater, never complaining. But it is Danny, an English boxer with the body to prove it, who gives Tom an extra pair, prompting Tom to lie to Douglas that miraculously he found them lying around.

Their thing gets going when Danny suddenly appears next to Tom as he's lying out in the sun; just as Tom wakes from his nap and sees the strange new god staring at him, he thinks, "It is only then that I articulate to myself that he has been lying beside me in the nude. Christ! I think, wanker No. 2." (A few beats later, and rather haughtily, Danny asks, "Is this worrying you?")

In moments of calm like these, when the guards aren't shooting them for fun, or when the Red Cross packages are coming in regularly and there is just enough of the soft, delicious cheese the Italian commandant deigns to share with them, the prisoners' bitter Eden can feel like a retreat from their troubled married and working lives back home. Cottage industries like Douglas and Tom's laundry business run on the currency of Red Cross cigarettes, and the queen bee theatrical director Tony (whose attentions the cuter boys thrive on, hoping to let their stars shine), mounts a production of Shakespeare, dressing Tom -- to Tony's mind, the only qualified Lady Macbeth -- in a flamboyant shift that repulses the butch and (as ultimately we find out) deeply closeted Danny.

The junctures of surprising relative normalcy like the camp productions not only serve as relief from the wider unbearable conflict, but also highlight the pettier aspects of the yearned-for domestic existence they've left behind. Nor is it too much to use the word drama to describe the backbiting and handwringing that arises when loyalties are betrayed (Afrika himself does). In a final confrontation, stronger even than Albee given the backdrop, Douglas and Tom have it out:

"That is where you made your big mistake! If you had let him in instead of reacting like a jealous wife, maybe you and I wouldn't be breaking up the way we are now."

"So you're saying it -- openly -- at last? That we're breaking up? That that is what you want?"

Safely yet still chastely in Danny's arms, just as the first signs of the war winding down threaten their bliss, Tom begins to worry that the desperation of the losing Krauts will put them in individual danger, and that they might have to turn their filched new guns on themselves.

"Tell me," Tom says, "what would you do if I did put a bullet in my brain?"

"I would follow you."

And then:

"But what about your mum? Your wife? Would you not be thinking about them?"

"My mum has been a great mum and my missus has been a great missus, so they'll be OK when they got on that other side, but my poor mate who's shot himself, he will be wandering about on his own, all shaken up and reaching out for his other half that's still back here. Which other half is me."

Moving though it is, this transcendent statement of romantic love may or may not have happened in the real life of Tatamkhulu Afrika -- who bases this "semiautobiographical" novel (according to the publisher's note at the beginning of Bitter Eden) on his own war experiences. Afrika did fight for South Africa and was interned in both Italian and German POW camps, and he does write convincingly of the violence and tedium of such a trauma, as well as the caresses and affections felt between men under such pressures. In the necessarily digested language of his protagonist, Afrika even uses the word gay, a word that may astonish readers confronting a period we like to think of as a "more innocent time." Not to spoil the outcome, but the closing scenes -- they are heartbreaking, by turns joyous and gaspingly emotional -- make clear that as a writer surviving just into the twenty-first century, about the force and depth of the subject he did mean serious queer business. (Shipped to London separately from Danny, he fails sexually on a visit to a prostitute who, knowing he's been a prisoner of war, blithely advises him, "Cunt is still too rich for you, lad. Get your boyfriend out of your system and try me again.")

By the time of his death in 2002 (two weeks after the publication of this novel, of wounds sustained from being hit by a car), Tatamkhulu Afrika had led what most of us would call several lives, taking in succession five different names (this one, translated as "Grandfather Africa," was his last), and living in several different countries on the continent. In a final incarnation he was a member of the ANC and did further prison time under Apartheid (although not in the same prison as Nelson Mandela as the barebones article in Wikipedia reports). Known mostly as a poet in his lifetime, he writes his Bitter Eden in often abstract, even opaque phrases, with language aspiring to lyrical heights. Still, he must have also understood that a clearer way to tell this story, which surely had haunted him for decades, was to give it to us straight as often as possible, leaving in the turds and the gunshots, taking in the shame and degradation and fearful self-examinations he suffered. so that the final forgivenesses of human nature he advances, while not redemptive, but understood in the hospitality, say, of an unexpectedly generous German tavern owner, resonate a great deal more movingly than a gorgeously extended metaphor, or happy ending.

Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika
Picador
ISBN: 978-1250043665
240 pages