Agaat: A Novel by Marlene Van Niekerk
Translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns
Tin House Books, Portland, 2010
Borrowed from the library. Winner of the Three Percent 2011 Best Translated Book Award.
When I started reading Agaat, I wasn’t sure whether I would stick with it. Milla, the widow of a white South African farmer, is dying of a creeping paralysis and struggling to communicate with her caretaker, Agaat, a black women born with a shriveled arm. Parts of the novel are written from Milla’s point of view as she becomes unable to speak, move and breath. I found it difficult to read. Through first person and third person points of view Milla mulls over her life on the farm and her disturbing history with Agaat. It was these two women, one white, one black, and their connection through time, that held me,.
Their relationship is an allegory for South Africa’s final struggles with apartheid and that country’s history during the last half of the twentieth century. Now it is Agaat who is in control, who cares for Milla, and who manages to work out her needs through a series of eye blinks.
The morning sun lights up Agaat’s cap from the back. Full of embroidery holes it is, densely edged with shiny white thread. The points of light in the weft flicker as she approaches. She hesitates over my bed, inclines her head, feels along the high peak with both hands, touches the base on both sides, whether it’s well pinned, whether it’s properly seated. If the caps is on as it should be, she’s empowered to walk through fire. Her crown of glorified cotton, her mitre, her fire-barrel speckled with light, that gives her dominion over the underworld. She deliberately touches it in such a way that there should be no doubt in my mind of her intention. She is mustered, she is prepared, I mustn’t give any more trouble, she’ll sort me out here, she’s the commander of my possibilities. From page 47.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Childless after seven years of marriage, Milla “rescued” Agaat from a life of “misery” and raised her, grooming her to become a house-maid. We learn of this history through a collection of diaries.
Today she is sitting in the corner in a little heap with her knuckles in her mouth. A sign of progress already, I suppose, that at least she’s sitting up. Yesterday she crawled under the bed. I had to drag her out of there three times. Clung to the bed-leg with the good hand. Surprisingly tough, the little monkey, that hand I just about had to prise open to get her to let go. The third time I gave her a sharp slap over the buttocks. She must learn, my goodness. She can’t come and play her tricks on me. Showed her Japie. A Good old-fashioned duster with a solid wooden handle. From page 393.
She’s in thrall to my eyes now. She looks everywhere that I look. Ever more complicated bluffing games we play, surprise games, guessing games. I could never have dreamed you can achieve so much with your eyes. From page 403
As we begin to understand Milla and Agaat’s history, Grootmoedersdrift, the farm they live on, becomes another character in this novel. The farm, along with others owned by white farmers, and what happens on them is as much a part of the struggle for freedom as the Afrikaaner owners and African workers who toil on them.
There is Milla’s husband, Jak, violent and abusive, unwilling to face the changes that are in the wind, and their son, Jakkie, a boy growing up with two mothers, one distant and demanding, the other offering only love and comfort. It is Jakkie who sees the struggle coming, who is aware of the effects of apartheid, and who finally leaves, with Agaat’s help and support.
I am not a professional reviewer. There is really no way I can completely do justice to this novel except to say that it is, in the end, a love story. I can suggest, if this time and place in world history are of interest to you, that you read it. Marlene Van Niekerk, a poet and novelist, has written what I consider a masterpiece. There many layers of Afrikaans culture woven throughout this novel, bits of songs, games, rhymes and lore. Michiel Heyns, also a novelist and academic, has done an extraordinary job of translation and has included a glossary of Afrikaans and South African words.