I encountered Tatamkhulu Afrika in the mid-1990s, at Gus Ferguson’s monthly Poetry meeting, held at the Natale Labia Museum in Muizenberg. Gus Ferguson made an enormous contribution to poetry, and publishing of poetry via his Snail Press. One of the poets he championed was Tatamkhulu Afrika, and it must have been on the occasion of the launch of TK’s poetry collection in 1995, Lemon Tree, which is still on my poetry bookshelf.
I recall TA as a gaunt , white-bearded, old man, accorded much respect by Gus. I knew nothing at all about the poet or his extraordinary background. Which I have now remedied via Wikipedia – see link below. It’s a story worth reading.
This post is a short review of TA’s novel Bitter Eden , published in 2002, by Arcadia, a British publishing house. I borrowed the book from the Library, as part of my Read More African Writers in 2021 project.
Boyd Tonkin of the Independent’s quote on the cover says: “Ordinary male relationships in extraordinary circumstances”. That’s one way of putting it. I don’t know that I would have come up with the phrase, in describing the novel. Knowing the man’s poetry, his novel came as a bit of a shock!
Briefly: the narrator (Tom Smith) relates his experiences as a POW in North Africa, Italy and Germany during WWII, and his male friendships. The aftermath of these frames the story, and provides one of the most explosive final sentences I have ever read anywhere.
That said, this is not a book for the faint-hearted because TA is graphically straightforward about basic human functions and male genitalia.
The story tells the progress of difficult, emotional male friendships under brutal circumstances. It also highlights the basic inhumanity of man towards man, and the horrors of war.
It’s not an easy read by any means. Did I enjoy the book? No. But that said, its unforgettable. Not recommended for sensitive readers of any gender.
Ismail Joubert (7 December 1920 – 23 December 2002), commonly known as Tatamkhulu Afrika, which is Xhosa for Grandfather Africa, was a South African poet and writer. His first novel, Broken Earth was published when he was seventeen (under his “Methodist name”), but it was over fifty years until his next publication, a collection of verse entitled Nine Lives.
He won numerous literary awards including the gold Molteno Award for lifetime services to South African literature, and in 1996 his works were translated into French. His autobiography, Mr Chameleon, was published posthumously in 2005.