Book of the Week: Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’

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Right now, as I write this, there is a generation of Americans who have grown up only knowing war. There are children aged ten and even older who have spent every second of their lives as citizens of a country engaged in international conflict. What’s more, they’ve grown up in a country where the prison population continues to climb, as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp that houses prisoners of the “War on Terror” remains open.

While these two depressing realities may seem unrelated to some, Tatamkhulu Afrika’s book Bitter Eden (Picador), first published in 2002 but unavailable in the US until now, ties them together in a way that speaks loudly to our contemporary context.

Based largely on the experiences of the South African-raised Afrika’s time as a POW during the Second World War, Bitter Eden is written from the captive man’s point of view. It is degrading, it is filthy, and as Afrika describes, it can also be downright absurd. There is very little dignity in imprisonment, especially when you’re in close, makeshift quarters like the ones detailed in Bitter Eden. At one point early on, Afrika describes finding a tiny bit of escapism and pleasure: “I am lying on the only patch of improbable grass in a corner of the camp. Balding in parts, overgrown in others, generally neglected and forlorn, it is none the less grass, gentle to the touch, sweet on the tongue.” From there, Afrika presents us with the lives of the soldiers in camps maintained by the Italians and Germans, and the cliques and rituals that arise from being herded into a prison. At one point, the narrator’s description of the different groups to a new prisoner sounds like something you’d hear in a film about our contemporary American prisons, with its hierarchy of groups, and instructions about who you want and don’t want noticing you.

Afrika’s novel thrives on his observations about the physical relationships between the prisoners: there is plenty of homophobic taunting, but there are also the parts in which Afrika is the most honest about his experiences, showing how urges can lead to action, that even the men with the hardest exteriors can give in to the basic human longing for physical contact. Scenes like the one where the narrator falls asleep with another prisoner (“his back to me, his buttocks warmly against my thigh, and I check myself for the usual dislike of that, but there is nothing”), are treated with more realism than the rest of the prison camp experience, which at some points reads like an existentialist fever dream, but one devoid of any pretense, because the absurdity is all inherent in the forced imprisonment.

Written when the late author was 80 years old and published posthumously, decades removed from Afrika’s experience of war but deeply haunted by it, Bitter Eden is the author’s exorcism of so many memories. His account of his time as a prisoner of war (Afrika was also arrested and convicted as a terrorist for fighting apartheid in the 1980s, and spent a decade in the same prison as Nelson Mandela) would have been no less striking or memorable if he had written it in his first days of freedom.