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Set in apartheid South Africa, Agaat portrays the unique relationship between Milla, a 67-year-old white woman, and her black maidservant turned caretaker, Agaat. Through flashbacks and diary entries, the reader learns about Milla's past. Life for white farmers in 1950s South Africa was full of promise — young and newly married, Milla raised a son and created her own farm out of a swathe of Cape mountainside. Forty years later her family has fallen apart, the country she knew is on the brink of huge change, and ...
Set in apartheid South Africa, Agaat portrays the unique relationship between Milla, a 67-year-old white woman, and her black maidservant turned caretaker, Agaat. Through flashbacks and diary entries, the reader learns about Milla's past. Life for white farmers in 1950s South Africa was full of promise — young and newly married, Milla raised a son and created her own farm out of a swathe of Cape mountainside. Forty years later her family has fallen apart, the country she knew is on the brink of huge change, and all she has left are memories and her proud, contrary, yet affectionate guardian. With haunting, lyrical prose, Marlene Van Niekerk creates a story of love and family loyalty. Winner of the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize in 2007, Agaat was translated as The Way of the Women by Michiel Heyns, who received the Sol Plaatje Award for his translation.
This morning I had to stare and stare at the black box where it's been lying for eleven months. Eventually I managed to catch her eye, and point my stare, there, where the shiny black varnish of the box showed, under the pile of reading matter. Under the growing pile of little blue notebooks, under the Saries, under the Fair Ladys, under the Farmer's Weeklys on the dressing table in front of the stoep door, there!
At first she thought I wanted her to read to me. She smirked. It wasn't reading-aloud time. It wasn't even breakfast time yet, before eight, right after she'd wound the grandfather clock in the front parlour, right after I'd heard the door of the sideboard go tchick and she came in here with her little book.
She'd already marked the bit she wants to read tonight, the corner of the page emphatically dog-eared.
The blue booklets on the pile all seem thicker than they are because of all the dog-ears. Sometimes she says I have to guess which bit it's going to be. Then she says she could never have guessed everything she was going to read there. But sometimes she opens the book on her lap and recites what's written there, long stretches. As if they were rhymes, or a lesson. Then she asks me if it was good like that, whether I can remember when it happened.
As if I can reply.
She always checks to see whether she's left anything out, marks it with her red pen.
How long ago would she have started learning it by heart? Or does she invent bits as she goes along?
As if I can remember everything exactly as I wrote it there. Thirty, thirty-six years ago!
She tore out my inscription in the front of the first booklet and fixed it on the reading stand right up against my nose. As directed by the Almighty God, it says there, next to the other text which she wants me not to lose sight of. The table of my sickness. The table of symptoms, medicines and therapies.
She never removes them from there, the two sheets.
As if the one should be a constant reminder to me of what I'm suffering from.
As if the other is proof that everything she reads to me from the little books was written by myself.
As if the two documents belong to the same order of truth.
I'm sick of staring at the two tattered pieces of paper every time she removes my book or magazine from the reading stand and packs it away. Sick of having to listen too, because she spells it out aloud for me, presses her finger on it, on the table, on the dedication.
Medicine: Pink Lady.
Therapy: Exercise, increased intake of fluids.
As if I can do Canadian Air Force exercises.
As if, in these barren regions, there is anything that can quench my thirst.
As if medicine can help. You take medicine to get better.
The writing on the torn-out page doesn't even look like my handwriting to me.
As directed by the Almighty God, Ruler of our joint Destinies and Keeper of the Book of Life ... I was young. And it was not the first entry. The real beginning of it all I never wrote down.
Never felt up to revisiting those depths.
Not after I'd found out what I'd brought upon myself.
Where, in any case, does something like that begin? Your destiny? Where does it begin?
The 'dedication' I thought up much later, when things were going well for a while, just after Jakkie's birth. Then I inscribed it in the front of the first booklet on the inside of the cover. Date and all, 14 September 1960.
Now she wants to come and force it down my gullet. My unconsidered writing, on an empty stomach in my sickbed, and to come and confront me with my constipation. What's the sense of that?
As if I can protest.
As if I can eat.
Can one call it breakfast?
I have no choice but to swallow it.
I heard her talk in the kitchen. Dawid was there and Julies and Saar and Lietja. They were waiting for Agaat to come and issue the order of the day. At eight o'clock sharp they have to fall in. They were talking loudly. Agaat was in a hurry. She wanted to go and silence them. They fall silent when they hear her approach.
I pointed with my eyes, the box, the box.
Just wait a while now, she said, later. She didn't catch my drift.
Do as I say, I gestured.
Now who's carrying on agn so ths mrning, she said.
A new thing, the speaking without vowels. Mocking me. Nastier than Jak ever was about the diaries.
She moved the bridge closer over the bed, brought the reading stand and set it up.
Do you want to read your covenant once more? Just can't get enough of it, can one? Perhaps it will give you an appetite.
That was a good start. She thought I wanted to read myself.
No, I could signal, that's not what I want to read.
That's my technique nowadays. Progress through misunderstanding. I just had to get the misunderstandings going first. The first would lead on to another until I had reached my goal. It's a kind of retarded logic, a breaking down of each of my intentions into the smallest intermediate steps. Gone are the days of the shortest distance between A and B. Now we're doing the detours, Agaat and I. By rolling my eyes at a pile of reading matter I can see to it that she ends up at the black box. I always have to fix her attention on the surface first. It's a start. And then I have to get her delving. This morning she obliged me, she put the pile of blue booklets aside and started rummaging through the magazines.
What do you want to read, Ounooi? She paged rapidly though a Sarie.
Four ways of getting your husband on your side and keeping him there.
No, she said, I don't think so either.
I looked again at the pile on the dressing table.
She took a Farmer's Weekly and opened it.
New developments in the practice of crop and pasture rotation: The south-western districts after 1994? Nay what, you know all about that. What about: The future of small-grain cultivation in South Africa? That's just up your alley, Ounooi, the future.
Lietja laughed loudly in the kitchen. There was a jingling of milk cans.
They're getting out of hand there in the kitchen, I have to go and check, said Agaat.
She clamped the magazine to the reading stand, on top of the tornout sheet, on top of my symptomatic-treatment list, set it up more upright so that I could see, put my glasses on for me.
The future. She placed her finger under the words.
No, I signalled with my eyes, no, no, don't come with your silly games now.
Again she turned to the pile and went through the magazines.
Now where are all the Fair Ladys then, they were here?
She started to unpack the whole pile, fixing my eyes in the mirror.
Ounooi, you're making me late now. I don't see the Fair Ladys, wait, there's one here. Fine Foods for Fine Occasions.
It was the last magazine down. I forced her eyes down, still further down. There was the shiny black box now, open to the eye. She couldn't follow my glance in the mirror, had to turn round to see better where I was looking.
Tsk, she said and shook her head, no.
Yes, I said with my eyes.
She took out the contraption. It was still assembled just as she'd packed it away. She straightened my fingers and fitted it over my hand. It wasn't necessary to unfasten the buckles. All the brown leather bands were tightened to the first hole and the chrome wing nut was screwed in as far as it could go. A long piece of wire stuck up above the head of the nut like an antenna. The thing looks like a glove for handling radioactive waste. Long since been too big for me. Long since too heavy. Like all Leroux's gadgets that he comes peddling here, it works for a while and then no longer.
I looked at my hand. I braced myself. I gestured, pen please. And paper. I can't write on air.
Agaat looked about her.
Now she knew what I wanted to do but she pretended she'd forgotten where to find writing materials. It's been a long time since I wrote myself. When I made the lists, when we cleared the house, a year, year-and-a-half ago. Eventually I dictated and she wrote. Or she wrote, and with my last strength I ticked off what had to be thrown away. The blue booklets. I said throw out. She read the instruction and ignored me.
Now she's acting stupid. As if she doesn't regularly get out the clipboard to press on when making her latest lists, take out her red pen from the top pocket of her apron. And there's the pencil, hanging from its string next to the calendar. She's always making notes. Writes them up everywhere. What do you want the people to eat at your funeral, Ounooi? Stewed tripe? So what do you want me to have inscribed on your headstone, Ounooi? And then God saw that it was good?
Yes or no I can signal. Or I can close my eyes.
She hauled out the clipboard from the lowest half-empty rack of the bookshelf.
The books fell over. She had to go on her knees to set them upright again. Shiny jackets and old canvas covers. Some of them were still my mother's. I threw out most of them in my great clearing-out. Agaat kept them. As she kept the diaries. She recited the titles as she put them back. With a straight voice, the whole list. Late Harvest, The Mayor of Colesberg, Carnival of the Carnivores, Seven Days at the Silbersteins. That was nothing. Forty-three Years with the De Wets, Floodwaters in the Fall, On Veld and Ridge, Chronicle of Crow's Crag, Circles in a Forest, Straight Tracks in the Semi-desert, Turn-off, July's People, As I Lay Dying, The Downhill of the Day is Chill, She Who Writes Waits, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, Breeders Don't Faint, tsk, try The Midwife of Tradouw, This Life That Death, Miss Sophie Flees Forward, The Portrait of a Lady, The Story of an African Farm, hmf, rather then In the Heart of the Country. That's what she read last, recently. Nay what, she said, she could farm up a piece of land better than the wretched old Johanna who lost her marbles for no reason at all, and she wouldn't let a bunch of forward kaffirs get her down. That was before she read The Seed is Mine which the woman from the library brought along last time. That shut her up. I know what was in her head. Fennel seed.
Like old acquaintances all the titles sounded as she put them back, like the names of family. She read them all to me in the last few months, or turned the pages on my stand so that I could read for myself. She'd read all the old ones herself long ago and first sampled all the new ones before reading them to me. She knew whole sections by heart. She said not one of them was as good a read as my diary, all you had to do was fill in the punctuation and write everything out in full, then you had a best-seller.
And then on top of that there are all Jakkie's books and magazines, sent on over the years, in which there are chapters and articles written by him. Agaat reads aloud from them regularly, very taken with her own importance, struggling over the long English words, but I've never really understood much of it. Private Speech, Public Pain: The Power of Women's Laments in Ancient Greek Poetry and Tragedy, Mourning Songs of the Dirty Goddesses: Traces of the Lamia in Orthodox Baptismal Rites of the Levant, Echoes of the Troll Calls in Romantic Scandinavian Choir Music. Terribly obscure, all of it. Another one about the polyphonic wailings of Australian aboriginal women when somebody dies off. The stuff he finds to waste his time with, the child, after all, he has a perfectly good engineering qualification in aeronautics. Chucked into the ocean. For ethnomusicology, whatever that may be.
There was something written on the front page of the clipboard. Agaat looked to see what it was. She looked at me. She wanted to say something, I could see. She thought better of it. Ten pages she had to turn over. On every page her eyes took in the contents. Funeral arrangements to date. She wants to create work for herself. And for me.
She opened the clip and pulled out a clean sheet from underneath and slid it in on top. She let the clip snap shut loudly, tsk-ed again with her tongue.
Then she made a great show of burrowing in the dresser drawer for a pen, every gesture exaggeratedly emphatic. In the mirror I could see her pushing up her sleeve and testing the pen on the back of the little feeble hand. Provoking me on purpose, where was the red pen all of a sudden with which every day she underlined in my diaries, and annotated and rewrote on the counter-page? As if she were a teacher correcting my composition. As if I had to pass a test.
It writes, she said with a long jaw.
She placed the pen between my thumb and index finger and pressed them together as far as she could reach amongst the buckles and the leather and the screws. She pushed the clipboard in under my hand. It was a laborious arrangement. She had to push and pull and balance the splint and the pen and the board and my hand. She made a ridge in the bedspread to support the whole lot. As you do with a rag doll when you want to make her sit up in a chair. Pummel her in the ribs. Punch her in the chest. Head up. Tail down. Sit, doll, sit. Filled with sawdust. Or lupin seeds. Or clean white river sand.
Then she put her hand over mine, the strong hand. The effect was comical.
Ai, Ounooi, you're making life so difficult for yourself. How on earth do you think?
I could see what she was thinking. Haven't you perpetrated enough writing in your life? That's what she thought.
Be quiet, I said with my eyes, you just be quiet and leave me in peace. Take away your hand.
She jutted out her chin and replaced the Foamalite packing and the plastic in the box and closed the lid.
Tripple-trot out of here. In passing she snatched up her embroidery from the chair. I know what that means. That's the other punishment. Today I'll be seeing her only at meal times and medicine times. Otherwise she sits here with me for hours embroidering, a big cloth, I don't know what it is, looks complicated. She counts and measures as if her life depended on it, the whole cloth marked out in pins and knots. It's been carrying on ever since I haven't been able to get around by myself. Otherwise I would have investigated long ago. She's mysterious about it. Taunting at times. Sometimes she looks at it as if she herself can't believe what she's embroidering there. Or like now when she flounced out of here, she grabs it as if it's a piece of dirty washing that she wants to go and throw into the laundry basket, glares at me, as if I was the one who dirtied it.
All that was quarter of an hour ago. The grandfather clock in the front room struck. Quarter past eight.
Now I must begin. Now I must write. Now I must make it worthwhile. What I unleashed.
I gather my resources. I try to find handholds inside myself. Rye grass, klaaslouw bush, wattle branches to anchor myself against the precipice. Diehard species. I feel around inside me. There's still vegetation, there's water, there's soil.
To start I need a preamble. The preamble is just as important as the action itself.
Everything on this farm must be properly prepared, everything foreseen and anticipated so that no chance occurrence can distract you from your ultimate objective. That was the first commandment, has always been. I instructed Agaat accordingly.
You don't just blunder into a thing, you examine it from all sides and then you make an informed decision and plan it properly in distinct phases, always in tune with the seasons. And then you round off the phases one by one, all the while keeping an eye on the whole, the rhythms, the movements, just like rehearsing a piece of music.
That's how you retain control, that's how you prevent irksome delays at a later stage.
That's the one principle of a self-respecting farmer, especially for mixed farming. That's how you get results. That's how you build up property. With built-in rewards in the long and the short term so that you can have the courage to carry on. A foothold.
Excerpted from Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk Copyright © 2004 by Marlene van Niekerk . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 4, 2012
To quote the book itself--"...the tread of somebody who has a book in hand and is too burdened by its contents, and yet feels obliged, compelled. Even the ending is predictable and has been foreseen for too long." Indeed, this masochistic novel inflicts as much pain on the reader as the "protagonist", Milla, does to the "heroine", Agaat.
It has great ambitions regarding its structure, and executes it well. An encyclopedia of agricultural/botanical/medical details and procedures awaits inside for those willing to not give up on this difficult, translated, sometimes scribbled, sometimes poetry, chronicle of Agaat, a slave on a South African farm. The author ingeniously uses this unconventional manner to set the tone, mood, and location, but it's not always easy to relate to the narrator, Milla. Although I normally enjoy when a book employs very specific bodies of knowledge to delve into what is important for the character, I still want to be interested in the teller's life, or at least feel like everything is alive.
Despite some great passages, I had trouble finding the motivation to keep on reading until I reached page 100. Then, halfway through the book, when I thought it should have been over, I lost interest again. That section was a riveting history, and I wish the whole novel would have been such.
One does pity and sympathize Milla, she seems always the victim, but, when the tables turn, you start to realize you have been listening to her bias. While she is a battered wife, she also physically abuses others, and so that whole abuse topic equalizes itself a bit. Any ground she makes in building herself up in you ebbs and flows, and you tend to ignore her, and so then, Jak as well, and focus on Agaat and Jakkie. I think if Milla and Jak were more the bookends of the novel, and Jakkie and Agaat took center stage, I could have invested more of myself.
When you thought the patchwork chronology was going to end, instead we are taking back even further than anything previous to reveal Agaat's life before she had her official beginnings as a slave. And all that is revealed in that section is necessary for the "punch" of the novel. But, if all that was taken out and instead revealed in Aggat's secret fairytale to Jakkie, than I think there would have been such an amazingly strong emotional impact. Also, Jakkie bookending the novel has no discernable purpose.
What this novel gets right, in additional to its attention to detail and its amazing poetic style is an exemplification of the need for ceremony to break up the everyday tedium, one's desire to spice things up for drama. This is especially strong when Milla is trapped and her mind has to entertain itself while Agaat struggle to interpret what it is she is searching for. There are also come great deadpan (bedpan) humor moments, vengeful moments exacted by Agaat when she finally figures out what Milla is looking for.
However, this is no HOW THE DEAD LIVE by Will Self, and the rambling poetic section could have been more successful, as in Caryl Chruchill's THE SKRIKER.
Posted July 20, 2010
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Posted July 9, 2010
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Posted July 29, 2010
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Posted August 4, 2010
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Posted September 7, 2010
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