Agaat (ePub) | General Fiction
Marlene van Niekerk
Helgaard Steyn Prize (2008)
Sunday Times Literary Award (2007) – for the English translation (by Michiel Heyns)
CL Engelbrecht Prize for Literature (2007)
Hertzog Prize for prose (2007)
M-Net Prize (2005)
WA Hofmeyr Prize (2005)
University of Johannesburg Prize (2005)
The events of the novel are plotted on a temporal axis from the middle forties of the previous century to the middle nineties with a sprinkling of historical references to the colonial boom time in the Overberg during the nineteenth century. The location is a farm 20 kilometres outside of Swellendam beyond the Suurbraak settlement on the farm Grootmoedersdrift (fictional but “generic”) situated on the Klipriver at the foot of the Langeberg mountain range.
The novel deals with the relationship between a 67 year old white woman Milla (the first person narrator and focaliser) in the terminal stages of ALS (motor neuron disease) and her coloured caretaker Agaat.
The nursing situation, acute helplessness of the mute and completely paralysed patient (she can only communicate through eye movements) makes extraordinary demands of her caretaker. The “nurse”, only ever seen through the eyes of the patient, goes about her duties with a mixture of infinite tenderness, sadistic precision and a desperate and passionate undertow of anger about the past as well as sadness of the anticipated loss of her “mistress”. None of these feelings are explicit or articulate. Agaat mostly expresses herself in hackneyed phrases and proverbs and carefully stylised conversational turns and set expressions and allegorical applications of sections from do it yourself farming manuals and embroidery books.
Through flashbacks and lyrical intermezzos provided on other narrative planes of the novel, the history that leads up to this situation is revealed.
As a young woman, Milla more or less “saves” the five year old and slightly physically handicapped Agaat from her abusive and impoverished parental home and more or less “adopts” her as her own child and gives her a new home. This initial relationship is of course compromised and structured by the racist and supremacist ideologies rife in Afrikaans community in the sixties as well as the generally punitive and puritan ideas about child rearing at the time.
The child Agaat is therefore trained, tamed and subdued rather than brought up with unconditional love. The fear of God is instilled in her together with a holy respect for the powers of the white church and the white state. She is made to understand “her place”in this configuration of powers. She is forced to work from a very early age and to fall in step with the tough seasonal routines of farm life. She learns the principles of home economics and husbandry, ranging from embroidery to rearing sheep and cattle and growing wheat and vegetables. She is taught to speak a formal idiomatically perfect “safe” and “spotless” Afrikaans. Agaat therefore grows up within a system of structured ambiguity. Care and nurturing and even a good dose of playfulness and humour are always accompanied by harsh discipline and strictly measured out punishment.
When Milla – after seven years of marriage – eventually falls pregnant with her own first child, the coloured girl Agaat, now in her puberty, is abruptly and without warning moved out of her bedroom in the house and made to occupy sparse servants quarters in the backyard.
Almost overnight her adopted mother changes her status from daughter to nanny.
Agaat deals with this trauma by slowly carving out for herself an indispensable role as child minder, as governess, as housekeeper and as a kind of general inspector and surveyor of garden and farmyard. Her revenge is to apply to her masters all the rules that they taught her. She asserts a terrible power by harnessing to herself the means and opportunities of the system that subjugated her.
The other “masters” are of course Milla's husband Jak and the “little master” Kleinjakkie. The former is an emotionally impotent narcissistic wife batterer, a weak, vain and reckless man who trades on his extremely attractive looks and manages to be popular through a nondescript acquiescence to the ruling opinions and powers, the possession of the newest and latest farm implements and gadgets and his prowess as an amateur long distance runner and mountaineer. His lot is not improved by the constant nagging of his wife who dominates him although she is inwardly a very insecure person and never manages to liberate herself completely from the institutional and conventional strongholds of chauvinism. She nevertheless plays a major role in the day to day running of the farm, which is in her name and had come down to her through matrilineal inheritance since the early days of colonial expansion in the district of Swellendam.
Milla falls ill with motor neuron disease fifteen years after the early death of her husband (he crashes one of his open sports cars into the “drif” of Grootmoedersdrift - yes, well) and the departure of her son to Canada where he applies for refugee status after deserting his post as fighter pilot in the South African Air force during the Angolan war.