Two men lie naked, pressed together in a small bunk, emaciated and exhausted by fear, clinging for warmth, comfort and companionship. Around them other prisoners sleep fretfully in a cold tent, one of many, circled by fences and wire, deep within enemy territory, in a war seemingly without end.
The embrace is complex. The relentless dehumanisation of war and incarceration has eaten away at the men’s flesh, their identity, their soul. That bodily warmth is the last thread to what remains of their humanity as one by one, others go insane or die. Yet, having grown up in the first half of last century, the embrace rejects every definition of manhood handed down to the soldiers by their fathers, their peers, or the army in which they serve.
That dissonance means their feelings for one another may take years to crystallise, by which point the physiological and psychological ravages of war may have erased any chance for lasting happiness.
This knowledge is what makes the fleeting, conflicted embrace so poignant, devastatingly so from our contemporary vantage. The South African writer’s experience as a POW was first captured in what he calls a “massive novel”, found and destroyed by the S.S. when the prisoners moved camp. It took five decades before Tatamkhulu Afrika returned to the story, writing Bitter Eden shortly before his death in 2002. It now has the feel of a classic.
The prose is crude but poetic, simultaneously raw and tender. The first person narration gives 1940s masculinity an authentic voice, one that shifts almost imperceptibly as Sergeant Tom Smith grapples with his feelings, first for Douglas, a nurse who mothers him through the indignities of capture, then for Danny, a married man who’ll happily kick the daylights out of anyone who might be “that way”.
My favourite passages were about the makeshift queer-run theatre productions that provide entertainment in the camp. The rites of the camp – 1940s men doing laundry, say – confuse gender roles, but nowhere more explicitly than on that stage, where men are asked to perform women’s parts. The three plays produced over the course of the story, including a fiery Macbeth, make for thoughtful examinations of the redemptive power of art and performance in surfacing identity and humanity.
The sexual identities described in Bitter Eden are unique to their aberrant environment, not easy to categorise (how we love to label desire and identity in our enlightened present!). It is partly what makes this book so haunting, distilling as it does our humanity to its very essence, the connections we forge with fellow humans despite the barriers erected between us, and which together add up to the opposite of war.
Bitter Eden is published by Picador