By Erica Eller
Reading literature helps to complicate the seemingly flattened and prescribed identities we inherit from our own culture(s). Whenever I’ve delved into books that contain cultural identities I’ve never before encountered in my own life, I’m awakened to the nuances of my own cultural makeup via comparison as well as the fascinating notion that we are culturally living in worlds within worlds, only a fraction of which I’ve ever fully recognized.
One of the books that has most ignited my imagination about these elaborate intersections of cultural myths, beliefs, and identities is Kafka’s Curse written by Achmat Dangor. Not a widely known author outside of South Africa (presumably), his book left me transfixed while I took a literature class on Southern African Literature. If I have learned one thing from that class, it is that it is necessary to read outside of the Western literary canon. I try to challenge the notion of such hierarchies in our reading habits by seeking established as well as emerging authors’ work. Reading for me has become a matter of creating my own “list” and Achmat Dangor sits on my shelf as a representative of my eclectic reading habit.
Published in 1997, three years after the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the novella is set in Cape Town. Oddly, I find that it resonates with me more now that I’m living in Istanbul than when I had first read it back in San Francisco. This may be because it includes the myth of Leila and Majnoen (spelling per Dangor), which was a popular topic for Ottoman court poets such as Fuzûlî. Dangor fuses a realist narrative focused on identity with narratives from diverse literary traditions as his main character, Omar, undergoes a gradual bodily transformation into a willow tree in the middle of the novel. The result is a kind of magical realist inter-generational saga. Much of the book is told from multiple perspectives and it jumps back and forth in time in an eloquent style of prose.
The protagonist is a character of mixed Indian, African and Dutch descent, which is referred to as “coloured” in South Africa. His name from birth is Omar Khan, a Muslim-sounding name, but he passes as Oscar Kahn (note the spelling change), a Jewish sounding name, in his adult life. He uses the racial marker of his hooked nose to pass and his Jewish identity grants him the privileges of whiteness. The irony of this is cited in the book: “This oppressive country had next-to-Nazis in government, yet had a place, a begrudged place, for Jews. Can you believe it? For that eternally persecuted race? Because they were white” (33). Passing raises his social status and he reflects on his choice and the related self-denial that helps him to succeed.
Around the same time his new identity becomes fixed, Omar/Oscar begins to inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. Several times before Omar’s complete transformation into a willow tree, he tells his wife Anna of a Persian myth he knew from his childhood, even though she is Dutch and only knows him to be Jewish. He tells her the myth of Leila and Majnoen, in which a gardener falls in love with a princess, but she is taken away by her evil father and according to Dangor’s version of the myth, he turns into a willow tree, waiting.
The myth is as well known as Romeo and Juliet in the Islamic world, and in many versions, Majnoen’s name begins as Quay and once he turns mad, his name that changes to Majnoen, which means madness. The parallel between the protagonist of the myth and Omar/Oscar depends not only on his transformation, but also upon his change of name, as if the new fabricated identity entails madness.
Anna’s brother Martin attributes Omar’s condition to an illness, which he calls Kafka’s Curse. This description suggests that Martin is stereotyping Oscar for his Jewish identity, although it is performed unbeknownst to his brother-in-law. It also reminds the reader of the theme of transformation into an exiled state, which occurs in Kafka’s Metamorphosis when Gregor Samsa transforms into a cockroach. In fact, the protagonist’s condition in Dangor’s novella is fused between two different literary motifs that draw upon his both inherited and performed Islamic and Jewish identities. Dangor draws upon Kafka in that his character’s entire physical being transforms and it reflects his own state of social exile from the identity he was given at birth.
Yet, as he dies, Omar/Oscar reflects on his transformation: “As for the rest of us, we cannot transform completely. Not even myths can change those invisible roots, ingrained like ancient fossil in rock. We do not metamorphose. We merely crumble into dust. That is my triumph. I have fobbed Malik of something to bury, and Martin of something to despise. I have broken the cycle of remembrance” (61-62). After Omar’s transformation is complete, he dies and turns to dust, which, as his brother notes, prevents him from having a proper Muslim burial.
The remainder of the book surrounds the interpersonal relationships of people who knew Omar and it traces sexual transgression through these different relations. The novel breaks down into a set of fragmentary stories, but it is overshadowed by the strange and mysterious mythic transformation that happens in the middle of the book.
The willow does not fit into the symbolic logic of either of the adapted stories, but it carries great significance for his South African “coloured” identity. The tree motif also functions as a formal device to reassert the pervasive presence of Omar’s family in spite of his attempt to transform beyond his familial roots. Three family trees are diagrammed in the first pages of the novella and they aid the reader in following the shifting narrative throughout the text. Dangor situates Omar’s death in the middle of the novel in order to explore its aftermath through the different perspectives of multiple characters. In this aftermath, the narrative is carried by the way that these characters’ lives intersect through sexual ties. This forms a web of sexual transgression that crosses racial lines.
In an interview, Dangor states: “Maybe there was a subconscious desire in my heart to provoke South Africans out of their hypocritical silence about sex. One of the real reasons why there is an AIDS epidemic today is because people don’t want to talk about sex.” Through the changing sexual relationships in the novel, the characters embody a larger metamorphosis of anticipated social change and self-discovery in South Africa.
Additionally, willow trees have a distinct history in the land politics of the Cape Region. The metaphor of the willow in Kafka’s Curse bears a connotation pointing to empirical land management practices that affected local populations of the Cape-Region. The willow tree that Omar transforms into incorporates an image that connotes both European poetic and aesthetic beauty as well as negative associations in the local context of South African land politics.
The implementation of Western silvicultural practices were initially adopted by the South African government in the early 1900s, predominantly in the Cape Region of South Africa. At that time, conservation was adopted in correspondence with a notion of national progress for the whites. The government fostered newly imported species in a way that facilitated logging expansion while also banning access to certain portions of the land. The management and planting practices correspond with the European settlers’ desire to re-design the land of South Africa to appear more European. These scientifically-supported silvicultural practices led to the incorporation of arboreal species such as willows would sap the land of valuable nutrients. Such diminished landscapes are reflected in the novella: “Malik had grown up in a world without trees, in townships where open fields, willows on the banks of diminished streams, dying orchards of wild fruit represented luxuries that denied humans space to put up shanties or build homes.” (Dangor, 113). These issues of land politics are still politically problematic for South Africans today.
Lastly, the non-native willow tree in the novel also emphasizes how the Cape region was a locus of trade, which included the slave trade throughout the extent of the Dutch and English Empires. The widely travelled trade routes through the Indian Ocean led to diasporas of Indian and Asian slaves in the Cape region as well as diasporas of African Slaves in Asia and the Middle East. Dangor’s parallel between the enforced transplant of trees and the enforced transplant of human lives is hinted at in the passage of Kafka’s Curse when Omar describes to his therapist how he told his myth to Anna:
Because I did not know much about the artistry involved in telling tales, I allowed the myth of Leila and Majnoen to lie a little more than necessary, allowed great liberties to be taken with the realities of time and place. […] In any case (sic), there are no great forests in all of Arabia. So, what are the real origins of the legend? A trivial incident, sentimentalized by slaves from India or Java or Malaysia to sustain themselves? A coping mechanism – that’s what you call it, no? It might have been African? (Dangor 30-31)
The myth’s origin is blurred in this passage, and the suggestion that it’s meaning could be transplanted into any geographic region along the trade routes that crossed the Indian Ocean reinforces the notion that it might have travelled to South Africa via the slave trade. More specifically, Omar highlights how the forests are geographically inaccurate in the context of Arabia.
In sum, the seemingly misplaced particulars of the hybridized myth in the novella include isolation due to race and class in Leila and Majnoen, the exile through embodiment symbolized by Metamorphosis, and the willow tree, which points to the European empirical movement of foreign goods from place to place.
Again, my current proximity to Istanbul reinforces my fascination with the possibilities this novella presents. Not only are we situated on one of the most significant trade routes between east and west, we are also living at the cross-roads of diverse sources of mythologies and cultural identities. Literature provides us a map to navigate these invisible worlds within worlds.
By Erica Eller
Boldtype Interview of Dangor. Random House Website. Web. 15 Oct. 2011. <www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/0399/dangor/2001>.
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