Wednesday, March 12, 2014

BITTER EDEN by Tatamkhula Afrika

Raw, powerful, tender, honest Bitter Eden is not an easy book to read due to the suffering men endure in prisoner of war camps.  Yet at times it is heroic when we see the best in humankind as these imprisoned men seek to comfort their fellows amidst  illness, hunger, deprivation and violence.   Afrika does not spare his readers in this autobiographical novel of life in a World War II POW camp.  His descriptions are graphic, often painfully so, which in part accounts for the book’s strength and the indelible impressions it leaves on one’s mind.

First published in Britain in 2002 Bitter Eden describes the emotions that arise among men who find themselves in dire circumstances.  They are in a place where a mate or friend is necessary for survival.  Our narrator is Tom Smith who was captured by the Germans in 1941, and sent to camps in Italy and Germany.   Initially Tom is pursued by fellow prisoner Douglas Summerfield who looks after him, jealously guards him, mothers him, and on the first night there with a roof of sorts over their heads Douglas finds “a double body’s length of sand we can call ‘his’ and ‘mine,’ there is an appearance of domesticity of a home...”

While Tom appreciates Douglas’s care of him the continual “fussiness” becomes a bother, especially when he meets Danny a rugged, well-toned individual, a former boxer.  The two develop a relationship which causes Douglas pain and jealousy.

Relief from the dullness and deprivations of camp life is sometimes found in Shakespearean plays put on by Tony, an openly gay POW.  In addition there are the Red Cross rations (cigarettes!) which gives the POWs things to barter.

Bitter Eden is a short book, only 234 pages yet it brilliantly captures the range of  emotions as men fight to maintain their humanity while existing in the most deplorable conditions.   It is a novel that will not be forgotten.

- Gail Cooke

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