The story behind this novel is so extraordinary that there is a danger the book itself will be marginalized. Born in Egypt in 1920 and brought up in South Africa, Tatamkhulu Afrika wrote a novel called Broken Earth when he was just 17. He served in World War Two and was a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany. In the camps he clandestinely wrote a second novel which the SS found and destroyed. After his release, Afrika discovered that the entire print-run of Broken Earth had been burned in an air raid. It was to be 50 years before he wrote again and Bitter Eden follows careers as barman, bookkeeper, drummer, ANC activist and, latterly, a prize-winning poet.
The book is, as was his destroyed manuscript, based on his experiences as a POW. Narrator Tom Smith considers himself heterosexual but in the enforced intimacy of camp life his relationships with comrades Douglas and Danny take on unexpected emotional and physical elements. In a squalid and brutalizing environment bonds are forged that cut across conventional notions of sexuality and need.
Tatamkhulu Afrika has transcended the usual arc of a prison-camp tale – capture, incarceration, release – and presented us with a richer and more universal dilemma. How, in whatever circumstances, do we live with our
fellow human beings and how do we accommodate both their individuality and our own responses to it? This long-overdue début from a born writer is a remarkably honest and disturbing book, which self-assuredly combines raw earthiness with dreamlike poetry.Peter Whittaker