“Agaat” by Marlene Van Niekerk
Agaat is a beautiful, lyrical novel of such depth and complexity as I haven’t read in a story for a long time. As a farm novel that spans the period of apartheid in South Africa, its central metaphor is of farming: nurturing, raising and growing but equally slaughtering, controlling, designing and laboring. Early in the novel, Milla de Wet clashes with the farmers of her region, her husband among them, over the question of sustainable farming. What is unmistakable is Milla’s deep emotional investment in the land that she tills and her surrounding natural environment– its ruggedness, its rhythms, its capacities and mysteries. This becomes especially apparent when she begins raising Agaat and teaches her all she knows.
Between an abusive marriage, childlessness, and a non-nurturing relationship with her own mother, one day, Milla makes an impulsive decision to rescue a physically and sexually abused three year old girl from amongst the black laborers on her mother’s farm. This girl, that she names Agaat, has a deformed arm. She is tight shut as a rock, refuses to eat, or talk and stays huddled in the corner of her room. Milla approaches this project as a farmer and a missionary colonialist but the only thing that actually works, as Milla finds in spite of herself, is affection. The first few years of Agaat’s life with Milla is one of mutual sustenance where Agaat’s love for her meme is unsuspecting , complete and Milla’s love heartfelt but full of misgivings. Agaat is after all a black child in a white home and Milla is not politically radical. Just about the time that Agaat’s presence begins to become noticeable to the white community, Milla finds that she is finally pregnant. It is then that she decides to do the thing that she had been preparing for but dreading: she shows Agaat her place. But what is Agaat’s place?
She puts Agaat in a room outside the house, gives her aprons and uniforms to wear and hopes to make her the house help and nanny for when her child is born. Neither daughter, nor slave, Agaat works out her devastating betrayal by Milla in a way that Milla suffers but never fully comprehends. Agaat becomes, once again, completely inaccessible to Milla but not as a helpless child as she once was but quite its opposite. She becomes better than Milla or anyone else at everything that Milla taught her and more that she taught herself. Agaat establishes her authority on the farm after managing disaster after disaster in miraculous ways. Not only does she become a better farmer than Milla but she becomes a better mother to her son, Jakkie. Through all this Milla is pushed further and further into a helplessness that finally becomes the disease that renders her completely disabled for the last three years of her life.
Lying in her bed with a rapidly advancing A.L.S, Milla de Wet is completely paralyzed and totally dependent on Agaat as Agaat once was. She depends on Agaat to interpret her needs, questions and rage; and, to give voice to the story that hinges on the day that she had decided to bring Agaat home that, through the length of the novel, neither she nor Agaat are actually willing to confront. From the diary entries, from letters that Milla intercepted, from moments of Milla’s stream of consciousness, and from an omniscient narrator who has no access to Agaat’s mind we hear the story of the farm, about Milla’s disastrous marriage, about Jakkie’s boyhood, youth and disillusionment with the politics of white South Africa. But the story that is most compelling is Milla and Agaat’s, as they recognize the violence of nurturing and the inadequacy of reconciliation based on truth telling. The beauty of the novel lies in how it achieves two completely contrary things with one move – it focuses on the utter dysfunction of language, despite the poetic intensity of its use, in enabling communication but makes the moment of the breakdown the point at which a different, intuitive communication emerges in response to a deeply felt but non-verbalized connection.
The post-apartheid racial politics of South Africa, if it were to be gauged solely based on the novel, has to negotiate much more than continued mistrust, wrongdoing and vengeance; it has to overcome self-hatred, inscribed and mirrored on the other. The novel also suggests that there is no other way but of reconciliation, not because politics demands that it be so but because with every generation the lives of the Black and White South Africans gets more and more entwined, written together in shared misery and history that cannot be picked apart, not even in song.