Kafka's curse /
Achmat Dangor.
1st American ed.
New York : Pantheon Books, [1999], c1997.
225 p. : ill.
More Details
New York : Pantheon Books, [1999], c1997.
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A Look Inside
First Chapter
In the end, Anna left her husband Oscar because he breathed down her neck. At Wrst his breathing had been his most endearing quality. Through many years of unconscious practice, Oscar had developed the perfect breathing technique: breath in through the nose, breath out through the mouth. He did this with such serenity that he seemed to Anna the most sensitive and reWned man she had known. Even more so than her father. She loved Oscar for his gentleness, his ability to smile when aVronted, his understanding of her need to rage at life's many and inevitable little agonies. Even when he was the cause and object of Anna's anger. Oscar's strength lay in his reticence: the hesitancy that in others seemed like a vice or a weakness became in Oscar a thoughtful virtue. All of this Anna attributed to Oscar's capacity to fill his lungs with invigorating oxygen, his finely structured, somewhat hooked nose quivering like that of a thoroughbred horse.

Then Oscar was struck by an illness that reversed the whole natural order of his being. It began with a headache which the doctor put down to an infection in his sinus cavity. At first his breathing acquired a hoarseness associated with chest colds or the flu and did not unduly disturb their bedtime tranquillity. But gradually Oscar's condition worsened, his breathing became irregular and his struggling lungs began to make harsh, anguished noises. Suddenly he was overcome, each night, by coughing spasms that shook his body, his eyes bulging as if he were near to madness. Because of their devotion to each other, Anna endured without complaint the long sleepless nights, observing her husband's pain with a helplessness that brought tears to her eyes. Despite many consultations with a number of doctors, and a desperate prescription of different drugs, Oscar's health continued to deteriorate until Anna saw in his face a gauntness which told her that he had reconciled himself to death.

One measure of their unquestionable devotion to each other was the fact that they had not had sex before they married, that they had both come to the wedding bed as virgins, to the best of their totally trusting knowledge of each other. Anna recalled this bond of celibacy with quiet pride when some of her women friends boasted about the surreptitious premarital fumbling sessions they had had with their future husbands. And even with other men. Anna was not in any way prudish though and enjoyed making love to Oscar. He, always aware of the nuances of meaning that words created, corrected her:We make love with each other, not to each other.And Oscar never demanded anything more than the caresses that Anna permitted. He stopped kissing her and pressing up against her body as soon as she felt his passion was becoming too fierce and asked him to stop.

There arose in her an inexplicable discomfort when Oscar's sexual desires became too intense. In the midst of their normally courteous lovemaking, a sudden wave of pure lust would surge through him. He would close his eyes as if to contain some unbearable pain within himself, his penis swelled, became huge and vividly veined like volcanic rock. But he always subsided the moment Anna whispered,Oscar, no please.

In the beginning of their marriage this distressed Anna, who feared that she could not satisfy Oscar's sexual needs. She remembered someone telling her that the key to a good marriage was sexual compatibility, that her father had taken a mistress because her mother was unresponsive and saw sex as no more than a duty to which all women coldly submitted. But Oscar showed great understanding and patience, sensing her struggle with the image of a placid Oscar transformed into someone fierce by his sexual desires. She loved him with great tenderness in those moments, as he kneeled on the bed before her, his head bowed, ashamed of the extraordinary appetite for sex he had displayed. He would only lie down beside her when his erection
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 1999-09:
Now that apartheid has ended, South African novelists must find other devils to fight. Novels like Alex La Guma's In the Fog of the Season's End and even Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country no longer represent the state of things in South Africa. A much-published poet and short story writer, Dangor has now turned to longer forms of narrative fiction. He fashioned this novel out of an Arab tale in which a gardener aspires to marry above his station and is turned into a tree. To gain social acceptance, Dangor's protagonist, Omar Khan, changes his name to "Oscar," takes a new religion, and courts a white woman. His dilemmas--psychological and social--make up the bulk of the story, which revolves around "colored" and white, Indian and Anglo, and utilizes the "politics of sex" to even the playing ground of ethnic groups. The skillfully wrought narrative is the novel's saving grace. The plot can be murky and fragmented, with only the occasional reference to Mandela or Afrikaans phrases to remind one that the tale takes place in South Africa. Recommended for libraries that want an international flavor in their fiction collection and for those libraries that want to add the work of young writers to their postcolonial (apartheid) collections. P. W. Stine; Gordon College
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1998-11-09:
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. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, November 1998
Booklist, January 1999
Boston Book Review, January 1999
Kirkus Reviews, January 1999
Boston Globe, February 1999
New York Times Book Review, March 1999
Choice, September 1999
New York Times Book Review, March 2000
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