On a trusted recommendation, I started reading Tatamkhulu Afrika's Bitter Eden without any context or even knowledge of the plot or themes. At first, until I adjusted its highly literary rhythms, it was disorienting and the lushness of the prose read as self-conscious. But then it took hold and I read through relentlessly with only occasional moments where the words on the page demanded more attention than the story, the prose snapping me off the page and into admiration. My initial instinct was that Bitter Eden was written in that literary gay voice that mingles camp and flowery language with the earthy and explicit, finding laughs in the tragic. I was wrong. Research after - not during, I was too involved - found that Afrika was a revered poet and activist against South Africa's apartheid (a fascinating history well worth googling and leaving me eager for his posthumous autobiography, if only to find where reality intersects with this work of fiction). It is a political and poetic voice but then, so are the best literary gay voices.
Bitter Eden weaves the tale of a love triangle, or as close to a love triangle as was allowed in viciously closeted times, in the prison camps of the second world war. The love that dared not speak its name is not even able to admit to its existence, and the excuses of male bonding or being "mates" has to suffice for what are very intense passions and sexual attraction lurking just below the surface. The title becomes a blatant metaphor as the horrors of the camp are transcended into a place where love flourishes.
“We crack the irreverent jokes of the cast-out and the condemned, only they are not jokes - more like little kids' shouting at the bogeyman in the hope that that will make him go away. Every day there are events of minor horror that we know will stay with us longer than slaughter for the very reason that they are so minor, even hilarious, like when our hut boss, weak with incipient dysentery, sits too long on one of the seats over the shit pit and a rat, from those swarming down there, jumps up and bites him on the balls. For days afterwards, we howl with laughter about that.”
The narrator, the pivotal corner of the triangle, is, fittingly for one trying to survive in a prison camp, obsessed with defecation, disease and hunger. The author does a delicate balancing act in describing what is disgusting with prose that reads beautifully. The aural appearance of a nightingale creates a magic moment that simultaneously reveals what remains of the prisoners' humanity while the cruellest act of all is perpetrated. A camp - in both senses of the word - production of Macbeth, piles on metaphors and thematic plot points without overloading or stalling the narrative.
Many sections are hard to read from a present day, and from a gay, perspective. The effeminate characters who are, not paradoxically as we have learned from history, the strongest, are mercilessly mocked and brutalized. The entire triangle turns on the sheer physical appeal of the muscular and hunky Danny who insists on his straight identity but is, again not paradoxically, the one who transforms the most.
The destruction of Douglas, the unrepentant and self-aware queen, is overly melodramatic and, alas, diminishes the anguish of his exit from the story. He is a character it is impossible to not fall in love with, empathize with, and root for, so when he unravels so spectacularly and horrifyingly, Bitter Eden loses its delicate balance and descends into a melodrama that isn't justified.
Because the story is told from a closeted perspective the sex scenes - which may not even be sex scenes, they are that coy - throb with a forbidden eroticism that is all the hotter for the obfuscation. This pays off near the finale of Bitter Eden and compensates completely for the ending that has been telegraphed well in advance but is nonetheless heartbreaking. There narrator asks, "Is there any curing of the heart?" and, in this case, apparently not.
Long after Bitter Eden has been finished and placed on the shelf, images linger and there is a dull ache for love passed up for a sense of duty and survival. Repressed passions hurt the most, but are also often the most memorable and poetic.