First published in Britain in 2002, shortly before the author’s death, Afrika’s autobiographical novel of life in a World War II German POW camp is a nuanced psychological portrait of the bonds—platonic and sexual—men create for survival.
In language that is pleasingly dense, filled with the starts and sideways glances of the narrator’s mind, Tom Smith begins his story when he meets Douglas at a North African POW camp; the two Brits worked in Division Headquarters, and now, Douglas has latched on to Tom with the desperation of a stray pet. Though a loner, Tom allows the friendship: These partnerships are a necessity in the camps, where illness, starvation and violence can be repelled only with the help of a loyal mate. But Douglas irritates—he is maternal and fusses, and chatters and tidies, and though back in England Douglas is married, there is something of the wife about him that Tom cannot abide. The taboo of homosexuality—the accusations, the denials, the flaunting and acquiescing—is a primary concern of the novel, as gay and straight and all that lies in between struggle in close quarters and constant deprivation. After a harrowing sea journey to Italy (in which Douglas nurses a debilitated Tom), a society develops in the Italian camp. With Red Cross rations (including cigarettes), there are things to barter, so gamblers get rich in their gaming huts, Douglas and Tom run a laundry, openly gay Tony creates a theater that stages Shakespeare. Then arrives Danny, a rugged boxer whose masculinity reflects well on Tom, in a way that Douglas’ possessive fussiness does not. Tom breaks with Douglas and becomes Danny's “mate,” a word suffused with all the things needed to remember one’s own humanity. When the prisoners are transferred to a camp in Germany (more brutal but better run), relations plunge into a final crucible.
What begins as an unforgettable account of prisoners of war ends as something surprising: a love story.