Bitter Eden: A Novel

Image of Bitter Eden: A Novel
Release Date: 
February 25, 2014
Reviewed by: 

“To call Bitter Eden excellent is to sell it short. This is an extraordinary book, the sort that comes along all too seldom. It is a work to be read and studied and cherished for being the rare thing that is it: a novel as a fully realized work of art.”

Bitter Eden is a rich, thick pudding of a book, both nourishing and luscious that begins with the simple act of opening a letter:

“After fifty years of silence, there was still no mistaking the rounded, bold and generously sprawling hand. Closer inspection betrayed the slight shakiness that is beginning to taint my own hand, and I noted this with an unwilling tenderness and a resurgence—as unwilling—of a love that time, it seems, has too lightly overlaid.”

A splendid beginning to a novel to which descriptives like “superb,” “moving” and “masterful” must be attached.

Note the skill with which the locus, the timeframe (and the necessary flashback) and the emotional stakes are all revealed, and the delicious word choices, because all of these traits will be present throughout as the plot shifts and shimmies.

And further note that, truthfully, the author had this reader locked in with the very first sentence, one that more or less guarantees reader loyalty, come what may:

“I touch the scar on my cheek and it flinches as though the long-dead tissue had a Lazarus-life of its own.”


Would that more writers were wordsmiths on the order of our author Tatamkhulu Afrika (whose name in literal translation means “Grandfather Africa”), an author who manages full-on poetry with a stunning lack of pretense.

It is perhaps important to note here that, in finally having a chance to appreciate the work of Tatamkhulu “Tata” Afrika, the American audience is coming to the party late.

Afrika’s personal history begins in Egypt in 1920, where he was born Mogamed Fu’ad Nasif and involves an early dream of being a writer (he wrote his first novel, Broken Earth, at age 17, and while the book was accepted for publication by a British publishing house, it was lost during the London Blitz when the publisher’s offices were destroyed in an explosion) and years spent in World War II POW camps in Italy and Germany (which would serve as the basis for this book, which he wrote nearly a half century later).

Over the years, Afrika worked as a barman, a miner, a bookkeeper, and a jazz drummer. In 1964, he made his way to Cape Town, South Africa, where he became politicized by racial inequality imbedded in that culture, and, in 1987, was arrested for his “revolutionary activities.” Because he demanded equality for all races, he was legally declared a “banned” person (banned from public speaking and from any form of published writing) for a period of five years and was, for eleven years, held in the same prison as Nelson Mandela.

Tatamkhulu Afrika did not begin his career as a writer until he was in his sixties, when, working as a poet he adopted the name “ Grandfather Africa” and published a collection of poetry that brought him both acclaim and praise. He then penned the novel Bitter Eden, which brought him further acclaim when it was published in the United Kingdom in 2002. Afrika was 82 years old when Bitter Eden was published but died within weeks of its publication due to injuries sustained when he was hit by a car while crossing a street.

Bitter Eden, happily, is not Afrika’s only novel—two others, Tightrope and The Innocents exist, as well as a number of poetry collections and a posthumously published memoir, Mr. Chameleon—but it is, by all accounts, his finest (not having located copies of any other of his books, I can only speak to this one), one that we are lucky to at long last have available.

Given the story of the author’s own life, a reader might, on first grasping the slim volume named Bitter Eden, expect that the book might have a great deal to say about the complexities of life, of self and of identity and I promise you that the reader will not in any way be disappointed.

To read the work of “Tata” Afrika is to study writing as an artform. To wonder at sentences that float like Calder’s mobiles.

As here, in this moment, in which a character is so deftly sketched:

“Camel is called ‘Camel’ because he reminds us of one, rather than actually looks like one—all long, arrhythmical bones that jangle and sway till you almost believe you can see the hump on his back that is not there. Add to that a beaten boxer’s nose ears that hungrily yearn, an alcoholic’s flush—though no alcohol is to be had—and perennially blood-drenched eyes, and you have something of the ugliness of the circus sideshow that enthralls even as it repels.”

The main action of the narrative is located in either of two World War II prisoner of war camps, in which a mixed bag of allied soldiers are housed, the first in Italy and then, after Italy yields, the second in Germany.

And what Afrika does so very well in his storytelling is to draw the reader into the moment-by-moment details of what life in the camps was like. How the emotional stakes, the ongoing actual question of survival heightened the quotidian experiences of life and how, at the same time even this most extraordinary of settings, a POW camp, became, in a way that would bewilder those who had not experienced it, home.

And through the intricacies of relationships bonds so close that they defy explanation or definition, it became, as the title suggests, Eden.

Afrika names his characters with the simplest, most generic names: Tom, Douglas, Danny, Tony. And, indeed, his characters themselves seem, on the surface, just as generic.

But Afrika imbues his creations with a life force that radiates from the page, allowing the reader to discover them as they discover themselves, as, locked in an arena of war in an ongoing form of passive combat in which they have no weapons, the men learn not only how to keep fighting in order to survive but also the fundamental reasons why survival should remain fixed as their goal.

In Bitter Eden, Tata Afrika pulls no punches; he shies away from nothing: Death is imminent, as daily a risk here as nightfall or sunrise, and sex is both as simple an act as breathing and the chief gift of Eden, where God’s creations stand in the garden provided, a single pair, united and intertwined within a strange new existence.

To call Bitter Eden excellent is to sell it short.

This is an extraordinary book, the sort that comes along all too seldom. It is a work to be read and studied and cherished for being the rare thing that is it: a novel as a fully realized work of art.