Apartheid novel focuses on fate over free will
Sunday, May 9, 1999
Kafka's Curse: A Novel
by Achmat Dangor. Pantheon Books. 225 pages. $22.
Though Americans may think of South
Africa in terms of black and white, the South African
poet-novelist Achmat Dangor knows better. Set during the
dismantling of apartheid, his "Kafka's Curse" unravels
tangled genealogies of race, culture, and class.
The novel, the first of Dangor's
works to be published in the United States, tells of people
who are not as they appear. Oscar Kahn, a moderately
successful Jewish architect, was born Omar Khan, part of a
family both "coloured" and Muslim, with roots that are
Indian, Malaysian, and Dutch. Changing his name allowed him
to "pass," enabling him to prosper under apartheid's caste
system - and to marry outside of his race.
Each of the first three sections
focuses, respectively, on Omar/Oscar, his wife Anna, and his
brother Malik; a fourth part returns to Anna and gives voice
to other characters. The final pages focus on Amina
Mandelstam, Omar/Oscar's therapist and (later) Malik's
lover. While this Modernist device provides little in the
way of narrative drive, it does deliver effective character
sketches, allowing the stories to unfold with subtlety.
Open to nuance but by no means
reticent, the novel can be quite blunt in its discussion of
the intimate relationships between these characters. Direct,
though not lurid, "Kafka's Curse' treats both sex and a
subplot of sexual abuse with sensitivity.
While the family histories that led
to the abuse may be part of the curse of the title, the
"Kafka" seems to refer both to metaphysical transformations
and to inescapable structures of power. Emphasizing fate
more than free will, Dangor nonetheless shows his
characters' choices rooted in the social, legal and national
history of South Africa.
Nel is an adjunct professor of English at the College of