Bitter Eden is not an easy book to read. That is, I realize, a difficult start to an essay meant to encourage you to give this book its chance to touch your heart. But, it is my truth, however difficult and not easy that may be, as this novel was the truth of Tatamkhulu Afrika’s life.
Now, I had never heard of Tatamkhulu Afrika when this book was brought to my attention; here is his bio, from the publisher’s website [you can CLICK HERE to visit the USMacmillan booksite for Bitter Eden]:
Tatamkhulu Afrika was born in Egypt in 1920 of an Arab father and a Turkish mother. He was brought to South Africa in 1923, orphaned, and raised by Christian foster parents. He served in World War II in the North African Campaign, and was a POW for three years in Italy and Germany. At the age of seventeen he published a novel in Great Britain entitled Broken Earth, but did not write again for fifty years. Bitter Eden was first published when he was eighty years old. He died in December 2002.
This is where I ought to offer a synopsis of the novel. Ought to. But, how? Do I share the surface action? Narrator Tom (Tatamkhulu) is a heteronormative WWII POW who finds himself stalked by Douglas, a man harshly judged for his feminine characteristics, with whom he becomes close, until a typically macho fellow, Danny, becomes his prison mate. How Tom survives the dangers and challenges of his journey through the exclusively male energy and company of POW camps is a startlingly prescient apologue for the state of male interaction in modern times in ways that sucker punched and gut kicked me.
Many reviewers have remarked on the lyrical and poetic nature of Afrika’s prose. Indeed. But, not easy. The syntax is winding, unfamiliar, its sentence structure and rhythms are unexpected and require careful attention, a willingness to slow down and go back and consider what was meant, what was hidden, what has actually happened behind and beneath and before and within the convolutions of phrasing, to translate the coded language and behaviors specific to the rarefied situations in which the characters are living.
Which is perfect. The characters, too, must make an effort to adjust to this new world into which they have been forced. They discover new parts of themselves, and must somehow integrate those, or not.
For me, like politics, all art is personal. This particular story struck raw nerves on many levels; issues of presumptive heterosexuality and the ways in which those who are not conventionally gender-appropriate are judged and bullied, and, most of all, the challenge of acknowledging and making fit an unexpected love and attraction, one that does not fit easily into the assumptions one has about one’s self, nor the assumptions the world has made about you.
I have loved seemingly-heterosexual-identified men who loved me in return, who were tortured by that love, who — in some cases, assumed it had to have a physical element and were freaked out and ruined by that attraction, and, also, in other cases, those who fought so hard against any element of physical attraction, they felt the need to attack me — physically in some cases, with slander and whispered imprecations in others. In the end, it was those who were certain of their primary physical attraction to the opposite gender who were comfortable having sex with men, because they knew who they were and felt “approved” ultimately by social norms, while, on the other hand, it was those men uncertain of themselves who had internalized cultural homophobic beliefs, who were freaked out at the prospect of physical intimacy with another man.
Such is society. We see now, again and again, those who are most homophobic who justify it and rationalize it by citing the most ridiculous tenets and outrageous lies about homosexuality; to them, every gay person is a sinner, criminal, pedophile, etc, and even in the face of endless evidence that their homophobia is unjustified, the continue to crow and bark and accuse and hate.
Bitter Eden was not, I suspect, meant to serve as such an allegory for the dangers of repressed feelings and imprisonment in the constricted, confined worlds we make. It was, I suspect, the love story Mr. Afrika had lived with his whole life and never been able to tell, or, to recover from. Because he dug to the core of that, told the truth of that, this novel speaks with the searing voice of love possessed, love lost, love acid etched onto the soul forever changing the landscape of the life.
And so, as I said at the start, it is difficult. Bitter Eden‘s poetry of the perplexity of the dichotomy of passion and deprivation will speak to that part of the reader’s heart where love and loss and memory and sorrow meet. Brilliantly, honestly done.
But, not easy.
I ordered my copy of Bitter Eden at my favorite, local, independent bookseller; THE CURIOUS IGUANA. Click here for their website and visit them (or your local independent bookseller) to have satisfied all of your literary desires. You know the damage repressing your desires will do!