Jacques Strauss’ The Curator is, first and foremost, disturbing and unsettling. It makes you feel repulsed and disgusted, yet eager to read on. Set in Strauss’ native South Africa, flitting between the events of 1976 and 1996, its plot simultaneously shows the immediate aftermath of the murder of a family and how the effects of it are still felt twenty years later.
In Werner Deyer, Strauss creates a fantastically wretched, pathetic and dislikeable character. From the start, Werner’s actions are awful and shocking as he “gently pours the warm urine over his father’s crotch”. We quickly learn of Werner’s loathsome nature and his dysfunctional relationship with his parents. To begin with, as he plans to end his bedridden father’s life in order to escape the burden and move on with his own life, Werner’s thoughts and actions are humorous- in particular his assumptions that his Nigerian neighbours are drug-dealers. .However, later in the novel he becomes much more messy and unstable, as he finds himself dealing with an alcohol addiction.
In the earlier timeline, the plot follows the actions of Werner as a young boy, his father Hendrik and their worker Styen. Strauss brings together the individual paths of these characters and weaves them together brilliantly to reveal increasingly more about their actions and the causes of those deeds. On several occasions Strauss makes a point of showing one aspect of a character, giving an initial impression, then later revealing more to change how we sympathise with them.
The most enjoyable aspect of this novel is learning more about why Werner is the way he is. All of the events combine to reach a gripping ending which, despite his countless personality defects, still evokes sympathy towards the protagonist. Underneath all of his mistreatment of his brother Marius, his rebellion against his parents and his obscene language, there is an underlying yearning for love and acceptance. This is perhaps the most powerful aspect of The Curator, the presentation of a character who is so tortured and damaged that he is ultimately an anti-hero.
With the racial segregation of Apartheid as a backdrop, we see much conflict between different characters and indeed much of the story hinges on the relationships between the white and black characters in the novel. Strauss gives a strong sense of the sort of treatment and attitudes that prevailed during this time. The treatment of the blacks such as the maid Maria or the young girl Lerato is quite eye-opening. We see their owners treat them very poorly, forcing them to follow instructions without question. The use of the often harsh South African terms such as kaffir alongside the English narrative gives a strong indication of the hostility between the two races. However, a drawback to this novel is that there is nothing to help those unfamiliar with these words and phrases.
What gives Strauss’ work here “shock factor” are the perverse sexual encounters between the characters. They are described in a way that is neither too romanticised nor too vulgar but when realising to whom it is happening, you can’t help but feel uneasy and a little guilty yourself as you read on. As the story progresses, these aspects become stronger and more frequent. At first they serve as curious moments of exploration but soon they become something pivotal and lead to some very dark moments in the plot.
The Curator is a novel which continues to improve and become more engrossing towards the end as the humour gives way to darker events. Strauss’ simple but effective use of language makes the plot easy to follow and allows the action to stand out by not over-dressing it with an abundance of elaborate imagery and metaphors. The character of Werner is one readers will love to hate yet perhaps one they may still root for ultimately.