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Achmat Dangor: Kafka’s Curse

This is nominally a reworking of the story of Layla and Majnun but it isn’t. Oscar Kahn (né Omar Khan) has changed his name to become more like the whites and has some success in this respect. He meets and falls in love with Anna, who is a white South African and she is unaware of his Indian origin. He develops a strange disease and they separate. He is later found dead, his body decomposed and a tree growing through the floor. In Anna’s version of the legend, heard from Oscar/Omar, Majnun is a poor gardener who falls in love with Princess Layla. Obviously, he cannot have her and goes off to the forest. When he is found he has become a tree. This version is not the standard version of the legend and may, of course, have been poorly remembered by Anna and/or Omar/Oscar. The point, however, is clear. In Dangor’s apartheid and about-to-be post-apartheid world (Mandela is about to become president), there are many who, like Majnun, do not fit in. Omar/Oscar, an Indian trying to pass as white, his hippy son with his blonde blue-eyed girlfriend, Omar/Oscar’s brother, Malik, now a successful politician who has an affair with Omar/Oscar’s psychotherapist, who is a Muslim married to a Jew and others all have problems fitting in with the locals – black or white.

But while this form of apartheid is there, it is not overly stressed by Dangor. He is interested in the character’s general alienation, as virtually everyone tries to struggle with his/her role and identity in this scenario, rather like Gregor Samsa in Kafka‘s novel and, of course, they do not succeed, dying unhappy deaths or, at best, living miserable lives. Dangor does not make it easy for us, bobbing and weaving between families and switching first from Oscar/Omar’s life/death to Malik’s life/death and then the effect on the other characters but he does tell a powerful tale about the problems of fitting in and adjustment.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Kwela