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 But the riddle of this man's death is superceded by the secrets of his life: born Omar Kahn, he was, in fact, an Indian Muslim, not a white Jew.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.