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Kafka's Curse: A Novel Hardcover – January 26, 1999

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st American Ed edition (January 26, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375405100
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375405105
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,996,615 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

South African poet Achmat Dangor's first novel is a rich blend of fairy tale and reality. At the heart of Kafka's Curse lies an Arab myth about a gardener who dared to love a princess and was turned into a tree for his presumption. A similar fate seems to have befallen Oscar Kahn, a Jewish South African architect. Abandoned by his wife after contracting a mysterious malady, he dies alone and his body is undiscovered for many months. By the time the neighbors call the police, "there wasn't much left of the body to bury. It was as if it had crumbled to dust." In the bedroom where Oscar breathed his last, a tree has sprouted up through the floor. But the riddle of this man's death is superceded by the secrets of his life: born Omar Kahn, he was, in fact, an Indian Muslim, not a white Jew. In the days of apartheid, these things mattered and Omar/Oscar, who had the temerity to disguise his ethnicity and to marry a white woman, had apparently paid the price for his subterfuge.

Omar's secret may be shocking to his friends and family, but his is by no means the only one. His wife, his nephew, his brother, even his therapist, all have things they'd prefer to keep hidden--but like pulling a loose thread on a very old and fragile seam, the revelation of Omar's past begins an unraveling of secrets and lies going back generations, with tragic results. Dangor tells his story with economy and grace, offering up love, madness, and betrayal in language as lovely as the themes are grim. --Alix Wilber

From Publishers Weekly

Recurrent themes of love across racial barriers, madness, suicide and child molestation are interwoven with grace and energy in this powerful story of obsession. Early on, South African writer Dangor refers to an Arabian myth of a gardener who dared to love a princess; his fate: to be turned into a tree. One of the characters here, Oscar Kahn, who years ago changed his name from Omar Khan and assumed the identity of a Jew so he could pass for "white" (Indians were considered "blacks" in apartheid-driven South Africa), suffers a metaphorically similar fate. The Khan family, with its history of mixed blood in several generations, endures recurrent tragedies as its members dare to "stray from their life's station." Virtually every character here is alienated from society in some way, and as we follow the complex circumstances of "that demonic affliction, an errant love," Dangor twines the snare of doom taut with suspense. Omar's wife, Anna, does not know he was born Muslim until after he dies; Omar's brother Malik falls into an affair with Omar's therapist, Amina Mandelstam, also a secret Muslim; Omar's son Fadiel loves blonde Boer descendant Marriane; and forebears on both sides of a complicated family tree have all paid the price of secret sexual liaisons. Yet apartheid is only obliquely evoked here: Mandela's election occurs offstage, as it were, as these characters go about their lives virtually unaware of the monumental changes that are about to occur. Because Dangor manages his plot with skill, it is all the more disappointing that the denouement depends on two violent tragedies that defy credibility. Another crucial failing is the character of Anna, who callously leaves Omar when he is dying, yet is apparently meant to earn the reader's sympathy because of sexual abuse she suffered as a girl. A smaller point: the glossary of Afrikaans terms is insufficient. Yet readers who encounter this talented author in his first work to be published here will enjoy the seductive intensity of his lyrical and sinewy prose and will appreciate the ferocious irony that underscores his picture of a country where normal human desires are forced underground by an ethically twisted society. Agent, Blake Friedmann.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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3.4 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on February 12, 2002
Format: Paperback
The title of this disturbing novel is a reference to both Kafka`s "Metamorphosis" and the alienated, lonely characters who haunt his fiction. Both themes crop up throughout Dangor's novel: the fable of the man who turns into a tree, a Muslim of Indian descent who reinvents himself as a "white" Jew, and the nation of South Africa itself, before and after apartheid.
Nearly all of its characters, both white and "colored," live miserable, violent lives--symptomatic of the brutal apartheid realm. Yet Dangor convincingly adopts an astonishing range of voices: the conservative Muslim ashamed of his brother's "passing," his perceptive wife who unexpectedly leaves him, his rebellious and cynical teenage daughter, the married psychotherapist with whom he has an affair (and who may or may not be a psychopathic killer). And the novel's violent conclusion actually offers hope: that South Africa may be able to purge itself of its complicated history, just as some of the novel's women are able to leave behind the pasts that torment them.
Readers who enjoy straightforward plots, explicit symbolism, and unambiguous endings will surely be perplexed by this novel; even the family trees and the glossary won't help much in untangling the book's many possible meanings. The story is often as blurry as the racial lines created during apartheid. Yet I cannot get this novel and its lyricism out of my mind; the more I think about it, the more it seems to make sense of the nonsensical, schizophrenic society in which these people somehow managed to live.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Bob Newman VINE VOICE on October 10, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Magical-realism is a very effective form of writing, but there is one caveat. It still ought to be understandable, otherwise it becomes totally abstract. I bought Achmat Dangor's novel in the UK a couple years ago with high hopes. It looked interesting. When I plunged into it recently, however, I found that I was going nowhere fast. It is an involved family saga, it is perhaps an allegory about South Africa before and after apartheid, and it is full of weird, largely-sexual images. In the USA, when segregation flourished, very light African-American descendants sometimes used to "pass", that is, claim to be white and live their lives by passing as white. This practice was no doubt widespread in South Africa too. In KAFKA'S CURSE, everything that is not black or white (an `absolute', that is) survives by passing. A Muslim of Indian descent passes as a Jew, marries a white woman. Crime passes as respectability. Dictatorship passes as democracy. Loneliness passes as marriage. And so on. Everyone is "ducking and diving", but what does it mean ? "Conventionally exotic", a phrase gleaned from the book, comes to my mind. Exoticism is used to wrap a very average product. I don't consider myself a literary idiot, but this one really had me puzzled. Like the art of Jasper Johns or Barnett Newman, if such work grabs you, you may like this novel a lot. If you remain sceptical, you may feel that it is a case of the Emperor's having no clothes. I suggest you try something else in that case and leave the muddled KAFKA'S CURSE for the aficionados of blank novels.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 13, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Wonderfully written, its magic realism captures the madness of both apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, as well as the incontrollable human urge to rebel against fate.
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3 of 8 people found the following review helpful By tpw79 on September 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I was expecting something completely different from the plot. I thought this book was going to be more about the day-to-day life of an Indian Muslim posing as white Jew in post Aparteid South Africa, which leds up to his death. Instead the book focuses its time on life after Omar's/Oscar's death, more particularly revolving around Malik's dilapidated marriage and somewhat difficult children.
I am not sure if Dangor was trying to play on the theme of how Aparteid has affected all the male figures. I think the book would have been much better had there been more discussion about Omar's/Oscar's life, his relationships, and what drew him to 'change'. Although most people do know what Aparteid in South Africa was, it may just seem like a 'distant' thing, considering most of us have never lived under such a ridiculous and absurd government. I thought the book was going to give more insight into the Indian perspective on Aparteid.
The book was also a bit confusing with so many different characters with similar names (Anne and Anna, Salma, Salleem and Sulman) and the ever changing scenes that the author gives no led-ins to. Even with the family trees at the beginning of the book, I was still just as bewildered. And what is with Dangor's obsession with sex. The book seems to exude sexuality left and right unnecessarily.
The bottom line is that I wanted to like this book, but my interest digressed as I perused through it; It came to the point where I didn't even want to read it anymore. I only finishd it so I could have a thorough and fair opinion about it.
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2 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 20, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is a hard-to-put-down wickedly humorous and iconoclastic read. The lives of disparate and unusual people are woven into a tongue-in-cheek review of a society that errs in taking itself too seriously. A MUST!
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