Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ""Bitter Eden", recounts the gripping story of three very different men and their struggles to survive the dehumanizing physical and emotional conditions of their German and Italian prisoner of war camps. It is also a moving tale of friendship and love forged in a common battle against adversity and torn by the conflicts that arise when men are in close confinement and dependent on one another for daily survival.
Tom Smith, a straight South African prisoner-of-war during World War II, is befriended by the prissy, mothering, and nagging Douglas. His growing dependence on and affection for Douglas becomes sidelined by the arrival of the more macho, and also straight, Danny. Danny’s presence allows Tom’s discomfort and disdain for Douglas’ more feminine traits to blossom. Battling the scourges of camp life together -- hunger, illness, filth, cold and sadistic guards -- Tom and Danny slowly form a close relationship, leaving Douglas in the lurch with drastic, unforeseen consequences. Eking out a perilous existence, barely staying alive, Tom tries to make sense of his mistreatment of Douglas and his growing physical and emotional attraction towards Danny. The war’s end only complicates matters further.
"Bitter Eden" is a beautifully written novel based on Afrika’s experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. Yet the author’s lilting, occasionally tough prose, detracts from the story’s grit and creates an odd disconnect for the reader.
Born in 1920 to an Arab father and Turkish mother, Tatamkhulu (Grandfather) Afrika, arrived in South Africa at the age of three, lost both parents and was raised by Christian foster parents. He wrote his first novel when he was 17 and stopped writing until "Bitter Eden" fifty years later at age 80, shortly before his death.
Like Tom and Danny’s unfulfilled plans for the future, Afrika’s all-too brief stint as a writer leaves the reader sadly wondering. What more he could have achieved had he used the 50 years in between novels to further hone his craft? What would have happened to Tom and Danny had their relationship occurred in a later war when strictures against homosexuality were less severe?