A powerfully magic novel from South Africa's intricacies

January 31, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

A few days ago, I finished reading a novel by a man I had never heard of, set in a world unlike any I had even imagined. Since I closed the last page, that book -- or something it has turned over, like a spade in spring soil -- has troubled me, awake and asleep.

It is "Kafka's Curse" by Achmat Dangor (Pantheon, 225 pages, $22). Dangor is a 50-year-old South African poet who is celebrated at home, but never published in America before. South Africa has produced a richness of serious literature -- before, during and after apartheid. But "Kafka's Curse" is unlike anything else I know, from there or anywhere else.

South Africa is a huge and tortured land. The evolution of its peoples and their interrelationships has been violent, intense -- defined by battles and conquests, by pioneering and courage, by exploitation and subjugation, by restlessness and resistance.

That history is not explored in this book in any detail. This is neither travelogue nor social diagnosis nor political polemic.

The most immediate events of the book occur in the post-apartheid period -- the early 1990s -- when politics, influences, expectations are all very volatile. But the action of the narrative spans, and dances almost constantly in and out of, the entire last half of this century.

Its world contains Boers, originally Dutch settlers, a farming tribe, and English ex-colonials, never at peace with the Boers. It's also populated by blacks, subjugated by both the Boers and the English, or drawn in from other reaches of the continent. Some blacks have risen to political power, others have not.

There are Indians and Muslims, Chinese, Lebanese, Malays, Jews of European origin, others -- all of clashing backgrounds and persuasions, each finding and filling particular niches in an economy, a unique ethos -- mixing, conflicting, in intricate combination and intense isolation.

The family that populates the book spans four generations, and is mixed almost beyond untangling with all those brands of blood and culture.

Words and phrases from mixtures of dialects ornament the narrative, without internal definition, but, strangely, their foreignness seems not to intrude. There is a four-page glossary at the back of the book. It would do better if it were twice as long. But any reader will do well to spend a quarter-hour with it before beginning to read.

The narrative is unrelenting, sensual, flirting always with the fantastic, but held within the realistic frame of a multigenerational, multiracial, multiethnic, multi-everything-you-can-think-of (and then some) family. In that family there is commanding, towering continuity, branded by a sort of congenital madness.

The armature of the book is a legend. It is simply stated, then left haunting everyone and everything throughout the novel. It tells of Leila, a beautiful Arabian princess who fell in love with her father's gardener, Majnoen, a gifted man "who could make things grow just by breathing on them."

Blissfully in love and prohibited from escaping their destinies, they agreed to run away with each other forever, to meet in the forest. After Majnoen had left, the caliph learned of the plan and, to prohibit his daughter going shamefully off with a common gardener, locked her up.

Majnoen waited and waited, "until the forest worried about him, his hunger and his thirst; and began to feed him." Long seasons passed until finally Leila escaped and hurried to join him. She reached their meeting place and found that he "had become a tree! Not an ugly old oak, but a beautiful and sensitive willow."

This is presented, of course, as both beautiful and tragic. Fulfilling its thematic tyranny, the novel contains much love-across-boundaries and much tragic, mortal loss. To try to outline the plot -- to insist there is anything like a traditional plot -- would be to miss the structure of the book, which is both poetically magical and episodically realistic.

The narrative voice shifts, wonderfully, from one character to another. Even when it speaks clearly from the consciousness of one player or another, it dashes often off the edges of immediate events. The effect is to give a reader an impression of being aware of a great sweep and depth. Truths begin to evolve as universal: Loneness, hope, the need for love and love's evanescence.

Playing deftly, Dangor confirms then dances away from the legend's certitude. A main character declares: "All such tales lie a little, without any malicious intent. It is noble I suppose to use the gift of storytelling, that peculiar power only humans have, as far as I know, to create a whole way of life from a strand of fact."

And then, later, he lets an ill-fated man insist that "the myth really warns against the madness of Majnoen, or is it against majnoen the Madness? An insanity that strikes those who dare to stray from their 'life's station,' that little room which you are told at birth is yours."

And later, it is said that "Omar's biggest sin had been his inability to accept his station in life, the takdier -- the destiny -- of religion, language and people into which all humans are born."

But all this affirmation of the legend's bitter declaration of destined isolation is ironic, though dreadful punishment does indeed come to this Omar, and to others who flee their "life's station." But, I felt finally, they were punished not for fleeing but for not fleeing as well and as fully as they should.

That is a moral judgment the book seems to raise -- and of course does not declare. This is literature, and artful literature, not politics or sermonizing.

And it is entirely wonderful: delicious, moving, mysterious, wise, and profoundly provocative. Read it.

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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