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Book Review: Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk (South Africa)

By Gwendolyn Dawson

Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk

At the beginning of this epic novel, seventy-year-old Milla de Wet is confined to her bed. Once the strong and competent owner of a successful farm inherited from her mother, Milla suffers from A.L.S. and now is left with only the ability to blink her eyes and, after a while, not even that. Milla is entirely dependent on the ministrations of Agaat, her devoted house servant, who wordlessly promises Milla “the best-managed death in history.” It is 1996 in South Africa, just two years after the demise of apartheid.

From this confined vantage point, Milla narrates her adult life story, beginning with her troubled marriage to the dashing, if agriculturally-challenged, Jak de Wet in 1947. Soon after she and Jak settle on her farm, Milla decides to take in and raise the abused young daughter of a farm laborer, renaming the girl Agaat. Long unable to have a child of her own, Milla eventually gives birth to a son named Jakkie, marginalizing Agaat’s position in the family. Over time, Milla and Agaat develop a complex co-dependency, as do Jakkie and Agaat, while Jak becomes jealous of Agaat’s hold over both his wife and his son. Agaat forms the center of a decades-long, multi-dimensional game of tug-o-war: “a pivot she was, a kingpin, you’d felt for a while now how the parts gyrated around her, faster and faster, even though she was the least.”

Agaat is about many things, including marriage, parenting, friendship, sickness, and death. Politically-minded readers will find plenty of support for interpreting the novel as an allegory for apartheid, while those with more domestic interests will appreciate the details on embroidery, ecologically-sensitive farming practices, and home-based nursing procedures. Perhaps Agaat’s most important lesson concerns the importance of communication to achieving lasting change. The best education and carefully constructed systems cannot bridge the gap between master and servant, between white and black. Rather, true understanding is possible only after years of empathetic communication. As Milla nears death, she and Agaat have finally approached this kind of understanding:

[The doctor’s] face looms above mine. He looks at my eyes as if they were the eyes of an octopus, as if he’s not quite sure where an octopus’s eyes are located, as if he doesn’t know what an octopus sees. He shines a little light into my face, he swings it from side to side. I look at him hard, but seeing, he cannot see.

Agaat catches my eye. Wait, let me see, she says.

[The doctor] stands aside. He shakes his head.

Agaat’s face is above me, her cap shines white, she looks into my eyes. I blink them for her so that she can see what I think. The effrontery!  They think that if you don’t stride around on your two legs and make small talk about the weather, then you’re a muscle mass with reflexes and they come and flash lights in your face. Tell the man he must clear out.

A small flicker ripples across Agtaat’s face. Ho now hopalong! it means. Her apron creaks as she straightens up. Her translation is impeccable.

She says thank you doctor. She says doctor is welcome to leave now, she’s feeling better. She says thank you for the help, thank you for the oxygen, we can carry on here by ourselves again now.

I close my eyes. He must think she’s crazy.

Again the fingers snapping in front of my face.

She’s conscious, really, doctor, you can leave her alone now, she’s just tired, when she shuts her eyes like that then I know. Everything’s in order, she says, she just wants to sleep now. I know, I know her ways.

Milla’s disease has the potential to reduce this nearly 600-page novel into an exercise in claustrophobia, but, instead, Van Niekerk has created a work of stunning breadth and emotional potency. Milla’s second-person narration is liberally broken up by her diary entries, which Agaat has decided to read to Milla during her last days, and by italicized paragraphs of Milla’s stream-of-consciousness musings. Van Niekerk is a poet as well as a novelist, and her considerable poetic abilities are on display throughout the novel. Likewise, Michiel Heyns’s masterful work yields an English translation with all the elegant power of the original language. These various elements come together in Agaat to create an unforgettable reading experience that transcends the lives of its four primary characters to implicate the broader world.

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns, is published in the United States by Tin House Books. Originally published in South Africa, the book won the 2007 Sunday Times Literary Prize and the Hertzog Prize 2007.

Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License. Her reviews appear here and there regularly.

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