BTBA 2011 First Look-Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk

Best Translated Book Award 2011

Marlene van Niekerk~South Africa

How can I blame you for wanting to vanish, Agaat? That you want to get away from me, away from the tyranny of me?  More inescapable than ever, now that I can say or do nothing, now that I myself am floundered, and immoveable as the stones.  I would want to open myself to you and take you up into myself and comfort you.  But I cannot, because I am your adversary exactly because I am as I am, mute and dense, and you are looking for safe refuge from me.  Under your own stones. 

It has been said often that those that have the most power to hurt us are those that we love.  Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat examines the idea of love and power in a intricate and moving epic spanning five decades of Apartheid in South Africa. Agaat is an important novel in the world of translation because it gives us a intimate view of how oppression twists love, contorts it into painful and strained attempts at generosity and forgiveness.  Novelist Michiel Heyns superbly renders the complex nuances and narratives of van Niekerk, allowing the story of two women to unfold in a compelling fluidity.  Along with Gordimer and Coetzee, van Niekerk is one of the post-apartheid South African writers uncovering the brutality and shame of her country’s history.

Set on a family farm, Grootmoedersdrift, the novel chronicles the story between white farm owner Milla Redelinghuys and Agaat, her maid.  The braided three part narrative – present time told in second person and past told through diary entries and stream-of-consciousness – is book-ended by the first person point-of-view of Jakkie, the son of Milla and Jak,  who is on an airplane to see his dying mother one last time.  This is an interesting choice to ease the reader into the strong, pleading and slightly desperate tone of Milla’s second-person narrative that sweeps us into the whirling thoughts of a deaf and mute bedridden woman dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Agaat, twenty-two years her junior, is caring for her as Milla once cared for her.  As the novel progresses, we see how heartbreaking this role reversal is and the opportunity it presents for both women to surrender to each other.  But surrender seems impossible after the wrongs that have been committed. 

Lonely in her marriage to Jak, a handsome insecure he-man, Milla hears the news that on her mother’s farm there is a farm worker’s child who is suffering from severe neglect.  Milla goes to save the child.  She finds her near starvation, mute from physical and sexual abuse and has a deformed arm from stunted growth.  Unable to allow this to continue, Milla takes Asgat, whom she later renames Agaat, and brings her into her home despite Jak’s objections.  Milla raises Agaat as her own, teaching her to talk, write, read and do various duties around the house.  She educates Agaat on the farm land and how it is to be treated.  Agaat refers to her as Meme, the Afrikaans word for mother.  Despite the reticence of the local priest, Milla has Agaat baptised.  But after years of tending to her, making her into someone Milla thinks is a going to be strong and useful, the rumors that she has adopted a ‘hotnnot’ (derogatory name for a person of color) become too much for Jak and Milla is forced to kick Agaat out of the house and make her live in an outside shack.  Being only twelve years old, Agaat is traumatized by this and thus there is a schism that cannot be bridged. 

What follows is the demands on Agaat to be everything to Milla, servant, witness and savior.  Agaat is forced into a servile position in a home she once was a part of.  But when tragedy strikes on the farm, Agaat is the cool-head who knows how to solve the problem.  When the cows get botulism, Agaat remembers reading how to cure it.  When Jak is off and Milla feels her baby coming, Agaat ends up delivering the the baby on the way to the hospital.  When Jak hits Milla, or verbally humiliates her because he feels emasculated by her superior agricultural prowess, Agaat becomes her stoic witness, compliant in her silence.  But once Jakkie is delivered, a new struggle is introduced between Agaat and Milla: the struggle for Jakkie’s love.  Jakkie does love them both, but he is part of a new political generation and after growing up with Agaat who is all at once his sister, friend and mother, he wants her to be treated as an equal.  He sees his mother as part of the old regime of oppression and coupled with her coldness, he is distanced from her. 

Milla, through her own stubbornness and weakness, alienates Jakkie and Agaat.  She becomes so locked in her own world on Grootmoedersdrift and her relationship with Agaat, she has no idea that the world outside is changing and how out of touch she has become.  Only when she is invited to Jakkie’s military graduation does she realize this.  Agaat is not allowed into the ceremony and Jakkie is embarrassed that Milla is overwhelmed, seemingly not knowing how to act like the other mothers.  Panicked by the people and her own awkwardness, she flees to the parking lot in search of Agaat, the one person who stabilizes her and restores her sense of order.

As the power shifts take place, Milla retreats more and more into herself and her land and Agaat is the only person who truly knows both.  But Agaat, too wounded from life and from Milla, behaves as if, though she may know her better than anyone, she doesn’t enjoy knowing her better than anyone.  While Milla is lying on her deathbed, Agaat reads sections from Milla’s diaries that are torturous for both of them.  This is where van Niekerk excels at blending the two distinct narrative voices – the voice of Milla now as an invalid and the voice of the capable and vital Milla of the past.  Agaat performs her nursing duties in a perfunctory manner, fastidious in her responsibility in the task that has been laid out before her.  Whether it is due to a sense of recompense for Milla rescuing and caring for her or out of her own sense of loyalty, Agaat tries to fulfill Milla’s needs before she herself even knows what they are.  But it is through the diary entries that we learn the evolution of this traumatic and sadistic relationship.  Milla’s writing becomes her only escape from the life she has created while documenting it at the same time:

Writing had in any case increasingly become your way of waiting to see what would happen next.  Through writing you wanted to get a grip on your times and your days on Grootmoedersdrift, to scrunch up and make palpable the hours, the fleeting grain of things in your hastily scribbled sentences, connecting cause and effect in the stream of events.  At least then you could later turn the pages of the diaries, forward and back, and see:  This happened before that, and this and that were the first signs of a catastrophe that you wrote up only much later, and this and that were simultaneously requiring attention and not without connection, even though the connection was evident only later.

These two narratives, though contrasting in voice and style, complement each other.  The diary entries are somewhat reflective as they catalog the highs and lows of Milla’s life with brevity and a subtle dash of whimsy while second-person narrative is roaring with desolation, regret and the heaviness of death looming, the defiance of total submission. 

Oh, my little Agaat, my child that I pushed away from me, my child that I forsook after I’d appropriated her, that I caught without capturing her, that I locked up before I’d unlocked her!

Why did I not keep you as I found you?  What made me abduct you over the pass?  What made me steal you from beyond the rugged mountains?  Why can I only now be with you like this, in a fantasy of my own death?

Why only now love you with this inexpressible regret?

And how must I let you know this?

Peppered into the call-and-response of these two narratives are Milla’s stream-of-conscious pleas that showcase van Niekerk’s skill as a poet. These are bursts of dream-like descriptions of her illness, as if entranced by her own body’s decline.  The braiding of these narratives produces characters rich and flawed, expressing the shortcomings of humanity within a historical context.

With Agaat, van Niekerk has done more than simply tell the story of apartheid or of two women who took the intangible from each other made it their own, it tells the story of how the history of our country can limit us as individuals.  In the end, as in the beginning, each woman accepts their bond with the other, that whether they love each other or not, survival has fused them together.  They can read each others eyes because words are too difficult.  In a world where language is too blunt an instrument, it is in the knowing that we communicate.


By Marlene van Niekerk
Translated by Michiel Heyns
Tin House Books
Paperback, 630 pp.
ISBN: 9780982503096

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