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4.0 6
by Marlene van Niekerk

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"I was immediately mesmerized...Its beauty matches its depth and her achievement is as brilliant as it is haunting." --Toni Morrison

Set in apartheid South Africa, Agaat portrays the unique, forty-year relationship between Milla, a sixty-seven-year-old white woman, and her black maidservant turned caretaker, Agaat. In 1950s South Africa, life for white farmers


"I was immediately mesmerized...Its beauty matches its depth and her achievement is as brilliant as it is haunting." --Toni Morrison

Set in apartheid South Africa, Agaat portrays the unique, forty-year relationship between Milla, a sixty-seven-year-old white woman, and her black maidservant turned caretaker, Agaat. In 1950s South Africa, life for white farmers was full of promise—young and newly married, Milla raised a son and created her own farm out of a swathe of Cape mountainside with Agaat by her side. By the 1990s, Milla’s 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 about love and loyalty.

Editorial Reviews

Liesl Schillinger
Books like Agaat…are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them. It's a monument to what the narrator calls "the compulsion to tell," expressing truths that are too heartfelt, revelatory and damaging for proud people to speak aloud—or even to admit to themselves in private. Observed from the distance of time, they present a pattern of consoling completeness. Through incantatory visual and aural imagery…Agaat brings to life a landscape whose significance lies not only in its outward appearance…but in the inward imprint it has left on its inhabitants. How startling, how awe-­inspiring, how necessary it is that the ­story van Niekerk assembles here is relayed by a woman who cannot speak.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Van Niekerk follows the widely lauded Triomf with a dark, innovative epic that trudges through the depths of a South African farmwife's soul. In 1947, Milla Redelinghuys is determined to turn her wealthy new husband, Jak, into the latest salt-of-the-earth farmer in her family's line. But her demands and manipulative personality cause an early marital rift that only worsens with time. As Van Niekerk follows young Milla through the decades, the author parallels it with the last days of an elderly Milla in 1996—miserable, afflicted with ALS, and reliant on her black maid, Agaat, for survival. Slowly, Milla's story—her abandonment and her masochistic relationship with Agaat—is revealed in all its ugliness. Clearly an allegory for race relations in South Africa, the novel succeeds on numerous other grounds: a rich evocation of family dynamics ; a chilling portrait of bodily and mental decay; and a successful experiment in combining diaries, the second-person, and stream of consciousness. Van Niekerk marshals it all to evoke the resigned mind of a dying woman who realizes, too late, the horrible mistakes that have made her life a waste. (May)
From the Publisher

“[Agaat] is absolutely the most extraordinary book I've read in a long time. You must read it.”—Toni Morrison

"I was immediately mesmerized...Its beauty matches its depth and her achievement is as brilliant as it is haunting."—Toni Morrison, author of A Mercy

"Books like 'Agaat'...are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them."—The New York Times Book Review

"Clearly an allegory for race relations in South Africa, the novel succeeds on numerous other grounds: a rich evocation of family dynamics; a chilling portrait of bodily and mental decay; and a successful experiment in combining diaries, the second-person, and stream of consciousness."
--Publishers Weekly (starred)

"Few books I’ve read carry the visceral impact of Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat. . . it is stunning. . . . each dichotomy—love, sorrow, purity, shame, betrayal, fidelity, goodness, and brute political will—is equally and tragically real."—Mary Gaitskill, Bookforum

"This is a frank novel about a white South African landowner and her lifelong servant in a radically changing country." —#1 in the "Ten Titles to Pick Up Now" in O, The Oprah Magazine, August 2010

"Lyrical, yet potent prose..." —Kirkus Reviews

Agaat is a tangle of language and rhyme, of wordplay and digressions. . . Both absorbing in its minutiae and provocative in its allegorical approach to apartheid, Agaat explodes the domestic sphere to encompass the world.”—Portland Mercury

"In addition to its vivid emotional resonance, Agaat is notable for the wealth of detail it imparts about rural life in South Africa before industrialized farming..."—Hemispheres Magazine

"[Agaat] is a family saga of mothers and daughters; a deconstruction of the Little-House-on-the-Veldt romanticism in which noble white settlers tame a hostile land; a massive, wrenching catalog of illness (physical and metaphysical); and a poetic exploration of control and the loss of control. It's a stylishly inventive book..."—The Rumpus

“Van Niekerk has created a work of stunning breadth and emotional potency.” —Publishing Perspectives

‘An exceptional book…tough and brutal, lyrical and sensitive’
--Henk Propper, Vrij Nederland

‘Fascinating and moving, this is, above all, a love story.’
--Kate Saunders, The Times (London)

‘A wonderful read for dark January nights.’
--Good Housekeeping Book of the Month

"The most important South African novel since Coetzee's Disgrace."
The Times Literary Supplement

"A masterpiece has arrived"—South African Sunday Times

"Voluminous, detailed, momentous . . . It is an allegory of colonial exploitation, apartheid, and the precarious steps toward reconciliation"—Independent

Library Journal
Sixty-seven-year-old Milla lies on her deathbed, reliving more than 40 years spent on the family farm outside of Swellendam in South Africa. Ravaged by ALS, she can communicate only by blinking her eyes. Milla's black maid, Agaat, is her sole caretaker. The two share a more significant bond than that between Milla and Jak, her brutish, self-centered husband. It even surpasses Milla's connection to her son, Jakkie. Agaat reveals their complex past, a past further complicated because Agaat becomes Jakkie's nanny and principal companion despite her displacement as Milla's "adopted" daughter once Jakkie is born. Agaat cares for Milla, yet the caretaking duties reveal her frustration and fatigue, and the disease's progression has significantly altered their relationship's balance of power. Van Niekerk skillfully leads readers through the decades of Milla's life, remarkably combining second-person reminiscences with Milla's first-person diary entries. Ultimately, their story is a powerful allegory of the story of modern South Africa. VERDICT Winner of the Sunday Times(South Africa) Fiction Prize in 2007, this follow-up to Van Niekerk's acclaimed first novel, Triomf, is not comfortable or easy to digest but is essential for collections covering contemporary world fiction because of its exquisite and provocative writing and moving story.—Faye A. Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis, OR

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Read an Excerpt


By Marlene van Niekerk

Tin House Books

Copyright © 2004 Marlene van Niekerk
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-9825030-9-6

Chapter One

It'll be the end of me yet, getting communication going. That's how it's been from the beginning with her.

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.

Symptom: constipation.

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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Marlene van Niekerk is an award-winning poet, novelist, and short story writer. Her publications include the short story collection The Woman Who Forgot Her Spyglass, the novella Memorandum, and the novels Triomf andAgaat. Triomf was a New York Times Notable Book, 2004, and won the CNA Literary Award, the M-Net Prize in South Africa, and the prestigious Noma Award. Agaat, which won the Sunday Times Literary Prize 2007 and the Hertzog Prize 2007, was translated as The Way of the Women by Michiel Heyns, who won the Sol Plaatje Award for his translation. Van Niekerk is currently an associate professor in Afrikaans and Dutch literature and creative writing at Stellenbosch University, in South Africa.
Michiel Heyns is the author of four novels: The Children’s Day, The Reluctant Passenger, The Typewriter’s Tale, and Bodies Politic. He has translated two works by Marlene van Niekerk, Agaat and Memorandum, and he has recently translated Equatoria by Tom Dreyer, (Aflame Books UK) 2008. He reviews regularly for the Sunday Independent. He was awarded the English Academy's Pringle Prize for reviewing in 2006 and the Sunday TimesFiction prize in 2007for his translation of Agaat.

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Agaat 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Camboron More than 1 year ago
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.
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