Saturday, December 28, 2013

South Africa: "Kafka's Curse" by Achmat Dangor

After reading this book, I've decided I must read several more books from South Africa, including at least one by a black writer and another by someone who self-identifies as white, and preferably at least one written recently. Kafka's Curse appeared in 1997 and was hailed by some as among the first "post-apartheid" literature, although it deals entirely with apartheid. As with post-Nazi Germany, I think it will take generations for South African writers to wrestle with the realities and pains of their country's past and some of the nation's present, as well.

Dangor writes of a period leading up to 1994 and considers relations between so-called "white" and those considered "colored"* according to the labels created in 1948 by apartheid. A central character begins life as a Muslim and reflects,

"In those days--the old South Africa, you remember?...Reality, then, was exactly what you saw. Nothing more than 'face value'. I was fair, and why not, my grandmother was Dutch. This oppressive country had next-to-Nazis in government, yet had a place, a begrudged place but a place nevertheless, for Jews. Can you believe it? For that eternally persecuted race?
  Because they were white." (p. 33)

To advance in his chosen profession (architecture) and leave the impoverished township to which "non-whites" were restricted, Muslim Omar Khan becomes Jewish Oscar Kahn with the complicity and assistance of his wheeling-dealing father. However, at his mother's death years later, brother Malik shows up to take Omar/Oscar to the funeral and sets in train a series of unmaskings that defy description.

The jacket flap uses the term "magic realism," which is apt for at least portions of the book, but for other parts, assuming it is ONE story and not separate stories about characters with the same names, the more apt term might be screenplay. In sections dealing with a character named Amina, parts of the book reminded me of Robert Altman's 1992 movie The Player.

My bewilderment with continuity and relationships began before I even started the text, as I scrutinized the family trees in the beginning. Lines denoting parentage make it seem that a brother marries his sister. A man whose dates appears with his wife's family and in his own dies in two different years. In the third family depicted, Ibrahim Schroeder marries a woman with the Arabic first name of Rehana, which is certainly possible but struck me as odd for circa 1925.

I am not the only reader who is confused. This review from The New York Times also bemoans the "muddle" of families and loves. The Times's reviewer considers the tales to be separate, each dealing with a metamorphosis, building on the Kafka title. Chapters definitely deal with adaptations that people make to cope with ever-changing circumstances. Throughout, physical violence, psychological abuse or perversion taints human relationships: marriage, parent-child, sibling, lover, employer-employee, and even causal passers-by who are swept into sea while sitting on the embankment in Cape Town.

Kafka's Curse revealed what must be some of the constant stress and feelings of self-loathing with which people had to live during the period of apartheid. The novel also sensitized me to the vastness of the country. A family travels 18 hours by train from Cape Town to Johannesburg; people can tell where you live based on vowel pronunciation; and there are vivid contrasts between the extensive coastline and the dry interior. This book does not deal with contemporary South Africa, the HIV/AIDS crises (one in 10 people carry the virus, with a disproportionate share among Blacks), or any of the political, economic, or social developments since 1994. For those, I will need a more recent work.

* Dangor has just two minor characters in this work who would be considered "Black" under those laws.


  1. Hey,
    Seems the day when South Africans won't need fences and tall walls is still some decades off. As long as poverty, unemployment and inequality persist so shall this vicious cycle. Unfortunately these are manifestations of more fundamental socio-economic problems. Police and private security are a treatment of the symptoms not the source. So, they are for now, at best a temporary solution.Thank you so much!!!

    1. Thank you, StreamAfrica, for checking in and give us a closer view. South Africa is but one of the many countries where fundamental problems are treated with temporary solutions. Social change is one of the very hardest types of change to effect, I suspect, because it involves society, and each member of society is motivated by self-interests as well as social ties, deeply held (even if wrong) beliefs, and short-term estimations of what is expedient vs. whatever long-term views of what is right.