Exclusive Excerpt From Bitter Eden

4.11.2014

By Out.com Editors

Tatamkhulu Afrika's autobiographical story of male love during wartime is an erotic tale of survival

Although most American readers are likely unfamiliar with Tatamkhulu Afrika's work, that is about to change. Bitter Eden, an autobiographical novel—first published in 2002, when Afrika was 82—is a profound work of fiction that deals with male bonding during wartime, as well as ideas of masculinity, love, and art. Much as John Horne Burns's WWII novel The Gallery is now only being rediscovered by a new generation interested in alternative narratives of male love in the 20th century, Afrika’s work captures a different side of the conflict, focusing on a South African intelligence officer named Tom who is captured and held as a prisoner of war.

Afrika died shortly after the book was published, and Picador has made it available Stateside for the first time, calling it a "modern classic." This frank and beautifully wrought novel deals with three men who must negotiate the emotions that are brought to the surface by the physical closeness of survival in the male-only camps. The complex rituals of camp life and the strange loyalties and deep bonds among the men are heartbreakingly depicted.

Here we have an EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT from the novel that demonstrates the erotic bond between men—when proscribed sexual labels or taboos no longer seem relevant.

In what I sense is a sliding towards morning, I wake, aroused by the deepening cold. A moon, slumping into its crescent, is about to set behind the hill, its light brilliantly in my eyes, a dream slipping from me like water from a skin. A few paces off, an Ite is standing guard, his rifle’s barrel jutting up behind him like an overgrown spine, his silhouette dark and motionless as one of the paddock’s posts, and, for a moment, I am back in the desert, Douglas instead of Danny beside me and the dawning of the second day of our shaming only hours away. A goat bleats as though it, too, had dreamt, but the sleepers about us are motionless as a massacre, and, for the first time since our arrival in the camp – the even midnight busyness of the huts no longer worrying my ears – I hear a train’s wheels clicking as it passes through the little station where, a year back, they herded us from the trucks and we began the long straggle up to the camp.

I can remember no lonelier sound, nor one that so painfully proclaims the absoluteness of our banishment from a world that each day slips further from us like the dream’s fleeing my brain; each day increasingly seems the unreality and the myth and our bitter Eden the only solid anchorage under the sun. Distressed, I stir, struggle against the blanket’s suddenly imprisoning me, and Danny reverses sides, facing me now, but still sleeping, an arm across my chest, his breath, faintly on my cheek, smelling only of itself and his one knee resting on my thigh. He is bearing down on my arm that lies straightly between us, palm upwards, and I try to withdraw it, but the knee on my thigh slips over further, angling him more sharply towards me, and his genitals flop down into my palm, the pubic hairs bristling against my wrist, but the penis and testicles slack and warm as a plucked but still living bird.

Unlike the genitals, his body is cold, its saddening boniness trembling slightly against my own rebellious bones, and I lie, crucified on a crossroads of indecision as to what to do. Should I push him away, thus surely waking him and reminding him of the day when I flinched from his finger’s touching my cheek, or should I try to quietly withdraw my hand and arm and run the risk of his waking then and thinking – with fatal consequences – that I have just finished fondling his crotch? Interminable moments pass, a bird cries from the hill’s slope, but it is no nightingale, and then irritation overtakes me – and a less predictable compassion for the vulnerable huddle in my palm – and I curve my fingers lightly over the core of his maleness with its waning warmth and think, ‘To hell with it!’ and sleep, his breath a trusting on my cheek.

When I again wake, the sun is up, but the air is still chill and the dew is heavy as a rain on the grass. Danny again has his back to me and could be asleep, except that there is about him a subtle stillness as of the watchfully awake, and I have this feeling that if I were to suddenly confront him, I would find his eyes sightless and staring as glass. Did he turn away from me in his sleep, thus releasing his genitals without his ever knowing where they had lain, or did he wake before that and find them entrapped in an unconsciously tightening hold? Anxiety mounts in me and I sit up with a deliberate abruptness, jiggling him, but he does not stir, and now I know that he is awake and his stillness is a sullenness, else why does he not speak or turn?

Sick with guilt, cursing myself for an impulse that I should have known would land me in the shit, I fumble out from under the blanket and make for the corner of the paddock where the goats have huddled in a final stand. My bladder is full and I piss with an exuberance that is far removed from how I feel, but the goats seem to relate to it and go back to their grazing as though I had proven to be of their primordial kin. A pom, whose face I have seen but whose name I do not know, is crapping nearby, his lard- white buttocks splayed, his hands bearing down on his knees and his face contorted like a woman in labour as he urges out the finger-thin turd of the semi-starved. I turn away, feeling sicker than I was, as he begins to wipe his arse with a snatch of the grass and see Douglas sitting up in his blanket in the place which we had decided would be ours, and am sure that he has seen me too, because he at once begins to babble and gesture with a vivaciousness that is as pathetic as it is alienating, and sometimes he pushes at the still blanketed form beside him and laughs, his head thrown back and his mouth as gaping as a hole.

‘Like a whore,’ I think and go back to where Danny is now sitting on the edge of the blanket and staring at the grass between his toes, and think to greet him, but then decide that I won’t, will wait instead to see if he will do so first, but he gets up and brushes past me and, like me, goes to piss, and I steel myself for the outburst and final bust-up that must surely come when he returns. But then the Ites are fanning our clothes out all over the grass and shouting that we have an hour to get dressed before they herd us back to camp, and there is a milling and bickering that brings out the beast in us as we try to identify what is ours, and, once, two poms even come to blows, but, all the time I am searching, finding, shrugging on, I am thinking, ‘Christ! What do I do now? Go back to Douglas with no card to play? Walk on my knees?’ and again I am trying to find a hatred for Danny as I watch him pawing over the clothes, the very twist and stoop of his still naked back telling me I am dung.

Clothes found, I start to walk over to where we are forming up according to the huts to which we belong, and Danny is closing up on me from behind, is walking along- side me, is touching my arm, is saying in a tone that leaves no distance between us, ‘See you later, mate?’ and I nod, not daring to say anything because whatever I say will be saying too much, but I do lightly punch his arm and he goes into boxer-stance, then swerves away to join the poms.

The Ites count us, panic, count us again, then start us walking back to the camp, but I make no attempt to latch onto Douglas and, in fact, could not do that even if I would because he has latched onto whoever it is that shared his blanket if the over-loud dialogue is to be believed. Covertly I study the guy, wondering why I don’t know him if he is from our hut, then do recognize him as one of the stagehands with quarters in the theatre who – because he was the only one from the theatre to be infested – was allowed to tag onto whatever group he pleased. A sallow youth with long hair but no beard, pointy elfin ears and a narrow-eyed narrow face redeemed only by a lush, almost womanly-red mouth, he is not my cup of tea and I can’t imagine him really being Douglas’ either, but, charade or not, preference or not, I am not caring two fucks any more about anything Douglas does.

Back in the hut, we don’t speak to each other, don’t even look at each other, and I grab my sliver of soap and tatty towel and hurry down to the ablution block to bath under a tap before every other lousy bastard gets the same idea, which adjective, I notice with relief after washing my crotch clear of whatever the white powder was, no longer applies. Then Douglas, pointedly waiting till I return, goes to bath and, at chow call, we, for the first time ever, each fetch our own swill and eat it each in our own bunk, after which I hang up my still – pointedly – unwashed dixie and turn over to get some much-needed proper kip.

But Douglas is having none of it. Balancing on the edge of the interloper’s bunk – he, for once, not being there – he addresses my back, his voice unsteady but not giving in.

‘Why did you make such a fool of me last night? What did I do to you that you should hurt me like you did?’
The namby-pamby second question at once ignites me like a match a flare. ‘What do you mean – hurt you? You seemed to be having a good enough time with what you picked up! And, anyway, I told you what it was all about.’
‘You lied, Tom. Lied like you did about the shorts. And about you not seeing who hugged you after the show. And about your not waking me to hear that bird sing. All this time, Tom, you have been lying and lying while you have been running after that what’s-his-name who, I am now sure, was the one you had in mind when you wanted us to open up our laundry business and you fed me that fancy talk about infrastructure when all you wanted was to have him with you all the time.’

That is where you made your big mistake! If you had let him in instead of reacting like a jealous wife, maybe you and I wouldn’t be breaking up the way we are now.’

‘So you’re saying it – openly – at last? That we’re breaking up? That that is what you want?’

‘Well, what does it look like to you? That we are on our second honeymoon?’

‘Stop talking like that! This is not the time for stupid jokes!’

‘Who says I am joking? I am giving it to you straight.’

For a moment he is silent and even my back knows that I have cut him down, that he is slithering about as in a flood of tears still struggling to be shed. But he tries again, game to the end – or just unable to accept that the show is over and the world on the stage is back to being painted cardboard and prettied-up wood? ‘How can you possibly so soon forget? Does it mean nothing to you that I cleaned you up each time you dirtied yourself in that horrible boat?, that I worked it so that we got double rations at the infirmary down south, that I was there with the aspirins when that stupid dentist would have let you bleed to death, and again, only the other day, when that guard would have beaten you to a pulp if I hadn’t chased him away? What sort of a man are you that you now can turn your back on me as if I’m trash?’

Excerpt from Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika. Bitter Eden. Copyright © 2002 by Tatamkhulu Afrika. Originally published in Great Britain by Arcadia Books. First published in the United States by Picador. All rights reserved. www.picadorusa.com/bittereden

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