Whom we love is as much a statement about those whom we reject. In the glut of romantic fiction out there, a lot of books gloss over the rejection inherent in the romantic love because really why do we want to feel sad for the poor sod when there’s a ooey gooey love to gush over. We gloss it over. We find ways to minimize it. Or we turn the rejected character into an asshole, someone who deserved it, a crazy idiot, or worse, an other.
This brings me back to the book I was reading Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika. The story is much about pure love as it is about the cruel rejection that made the love possible. Warning, there are spoilers. Actually it’s the whole plot summary. Either way you’re warned.
The narrator Tom is a masculine, single, POW, and by default straight. He first bonds with the married Douglas, who is effeminate and mothering. No one in the prison camp really likes the fragile Douglas. Even the self-identified gay prisoners don’t like him. Tom eventually comes to accept Douglas because underneath his fussy mothering ways, Douglas is loyal and honorable.
After a year of being Douglas’ ‘mate'(all platonic), Tom is more open to his queer side. He’s part of a theatre group run by a gay pow. He regularly submits himself to have his portrait drawn by another gay prisoner who ‘studies his face but draws his genitals.’ Then he runs into another british pow, married Danny, who’s a man’s man and is for all intents and purposes straight. Danny is simply more fun. The bond between Tom and Danny is natural, quick, and goes deeper because they both share wounds of childhood traumas. And oh, Danny can’t stand Douglas in the slightest.
Tom rejects Douglas for Danny. Make no mistake, the rejection is cruel and pure aggression. And you know if Tom hadn’t learnt to accept Douglas, he would not have had the capacity to love Danny. The latter half of book is sweet as much as it is bitter, Tom and Danny blossom albeit in their sly not-overtly sexual way while Douglas goes insane.
Throughout the latter half of the book, Tom grapples with his responsibility in Douglas’ demise. Yes every man is responsible for his own heart, but was the rejection necessary for true love to flower? I kept hoping the men would look beyond myopic delineations of his and mine and use the spark of love to forge something more universal. You know like a brotherhood of sorts, but that wish is a fantasy really. When the death, hunger, torture, stare at you daily, the urge to possess something for yourself only is all that there is.
The rejection speaks to the struggle between the feminine vs the masculine that permeates the whole book, and how being masculine means the rejection of femininity. When Tom decides to play Lady Macbeth, the experience almost breaks their relationship as the pair go to absurd lengths to re-affirm their masculinity. The irony is while Tom is more willing to explore the queerer side of himself and Danny much less so, it’s Danny who wants to continue the relationship after the war ends. But Tom is too afraid. He gets married and doesn’t speak to or hear from Danny again until after his death.
A sad book yes, but a real and touching book. Douglas’ tragic end rings through to the last pages when Tom in his older years is trying to find some resolution to his complicity. Not only did he let Douglas down, he let Danny down big time.
It’s sad how it takes extreme circumstances to discover hidden dimensions of yourself, but as soon as the pressure goes away and the situation returns to the mundane, your expanded horizons shrink back and everything resets to a bland and stifling normal. In the end Tom wishes to go back to the Bitter Eden of the pow camp. The possibility of creating a new Eden in the midst of his homely, freer, normal is not one he seriously grapples with, and that’s just sad.