“Poor Agaat. What has my life been? What has her life been? How can I ever reward her for coming this far with me here on Grootmoedersdrift? How does one compensate somebody for that fact that she allowed herself to be taken away and taken in and then cast out again? And to be made and unmade and remade. Not that she had a choice. I even gave her another name.”
This is a variation on the refrain that haunts Milla de Wet’s thoughts as she lies, paralyzed in the advanced stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, completely dependent on her black servant turned caregiver Agaat to attend to her every need. As Marlene van Niekerk’s magnificent novel begins, the two women are reduced to communicating through eye movements. Eventually even that will be impossible. But Milla’s mind is sharp and brittle in her confined waking hours and Agaat, stalwart and efficient to the end, knows her mistress well. Too well.
From this claustrophobic perspective a remarkably expansive and complex novel of Apartheid South Africa unfolds. Van Niekerk, a nominee for the 2015 International Booker Prize, achieves this by deconstructing the traditional farm novel and weaving together a complex, poetic and devastatingly powerful epic. It is almost impossible to find the words to adequately capture the experience of reading Agaat (or The Way of the Women as it was published in the UK) without resorting to hyperbole. It is, quite simply, an inspiring, unforgettable novel. One that invites and rewards careful reading.
Despite the rolling fields and pastures, river and mountains, this is an intensely focused novel. It is not easy to exist with Milla trapped inside her immobile body, or to listen as she bitterly dissects and dismantles her life – alternately self righteous and regretful – addressing herself in the second person. It is not comfortable to be swept into the stream of consciousness of her internal ramblings that mix obsession over her current state of being with the flotsam and jetsam of her farm woman’s domestic life. Or to discover, through her notebook journals, the details of Jakkie’s childhood and, eventually, Agaat’s early years in her home. By masterfully weaving together these four distinct narrative streams in each chapter, van Niekerk creates an enduring portrait of the complexities of power as they play out within families, between races, and in a country that is in an increasingly volatile political state.
As the story is fleshed out, we meet Milla in 1948, as a young woman engaged to the dashing Jak de Wet, a trophy husband of sorts, handsome but ill suited to the farming life. Their marriage is increasingly volatile and strained, with both playing their own counterproductive roles out to the bitter end. For many years the couple is unsuccessful in their efforts to conceive. That is where Agaat comes in. The daughter of one of the labourers on her mother’s farm, she is born with a withered arm and, as a result, is subjected to horrific abuse in her early years. Milla imagines a heroic role for herself in rescuing the rejected child and bringing her into her home against the protests of her husband and the sidelong glances of her neighbours. For years Milla treats Agaat as a surrogate daughter – in so far as a segregated society will allow – teaching her to read and write, to explore and appreciate nature, and to master the fundamentals of animal husbandry. And then, suddenly, she discovers she is pregnant. Before the baby arrives, Agaat’s role is abruptly shifted. She is moved into an outside room and a maid’s uniform with strict expectations. But when little Jakkie arrives Agaat, barely more than a child herself, becomes the loving and compassionate caregiver that neither of his parents can ever manage to be.
As the end is approaching Milla is forced to weigh and reevaluate her own life and the fate to which her actions have tethered Agaat. As often as she questions her actions, it is not clear that she can ever stand back from herself and see the big picture. She is, in the end, complicit in maintaining the Afrikaner social order that Jak so proudly believes in even if, in her own mind, she is a martyr. Agaat is at once the angel in the wings, servant and nanny; and the witch still bound to her “primitive” ancestry. She has been molded and created by Milla, but her thoughts remain hidden. Not until the closing pages of the novel is her side finally revealed in the dark and heartbreaking bedtime story she that she and Jakkie shared when he was small.
Originally published in Afrikaans, the translation by Michiel Heyns is simply brilliant. Van Niekerk is first and foremost a poet and her language is filled with allusions to music, children’s rhymes, and literature. The scent of fennel, colours of flowers and foliage, the calls of birds and nosies of farm animals, the guttural g’s of Afrikaans all add to the multidimensional experience of reading Agaat. As Heyns points out in his Translator’s Note: “Agaat is a highly allusive text, permeated, at times almost subliminally, with traces of Afrikaans cultural goods: songs, children’s rhymes, children’s games, hymns, idiomatic expressions, farming lore.” The ultimate result appears effortless, mediating the boundaries where necessary but maintaining a distinct cultural experience. An interview with Heyns in Words Without Borders is an informative and entertaining exploration of the text and the translation experience that is highly recommended for interested readers.
Agaat is bookended with a Prologue and Epilogue in Jakkie’s voice. It is 1996 and he is flying home from Canada because his mother is near death at the beginning and returning after the funeral at the end. He left South Africa in 1985 to escape the political conditions in his native country, and, one suspects, his parents. As I write this, I am about to fly from Canada to South Africa myself for my first ever visit. I am aware of the fraught tensions that continue to run through the country, most recently arising in the literary community. I will be carrying the many complex currents that run through this important novel with me as I leave.