Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk

The motifs of entrapment, communication, and identity dominate the beautiful and emotionally intense Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk. Published in 2004 in Afrikaans, and in a skilled English translation by Michiel Heyns in 2006 (2010 in the U.S.), the apartheid-era novel tackles emotionally complex relationships among the members of a family of white South African farmers and the black servants and laborers that share their space. In particular, van Niekerk focuses attention on Milla, the mistress of the farm, and her maidservant, Agaat. The novel spans 1947 to 1994, tracing the entire period of apartheid through the story of Milla’s lifetime, from courtship to death.

The narrative jumps among several different modes and time periods. The reader encounters Milla through the eyes of her grown son; in her internal monologue on her deathbed with Agaat as her sole caretaker; in a remarkably good second-person narrative; and in diary entries, both as she wrote them and as Agaat reads them back to her in her mute and immobile old age. Agaat, of course, is present in nearly all of these threads, depicted with a varying degree of agency and richness in each. The multiple narratives work beautifully together, weaving a portrait of the two women that grows increasingly complex (or perhaps entangled)–and yet that same notion of weaving is complicated by Agaat’s literal embroidery, which is first forced upon her, then becomes a coping mechanism, and finally seals her closure from Milla as she weaves Milla’s death shroud.

As I alluded to previously, communication and entrapment oppose each other as focal points in the novel. The immediate context for these two themes is that of Milla’s end days, as she is mutely trapped within an unmoving body, her lucid mind flying among comfort and rage and pain as her fraught relationship with Agaat plays out its final notes, often without a word being spoken by either of them. The depiction of what is left for Milla is beautiful and unexpected:

As if it’s conceivable that of a whole concert only this would remain to listen to: The siffling of the sleeves encircling the wrists of the musicians, the creaking of the chairs on which they sit, the heaving of their breathing with the up and the down stroke of the bow, the riffling of the pages of the score. Only that, without the music. Harmless negative music, the soil without the cultivation. (309)

Milla’s world is diminished: Not a reduction of volume, but an elimination of beauty, leaving only the framework of the musicians’ movements. Her silent negotiation with Agaat to reduce her discomforts and meet her physical needs at times seems to be an intricate and intimate dance, but it is clear that the dance brings no joy and no beauty to either party. What the reader learns later in the novel is that the movement toward understanding through silence actually began much earlier between Milla and Agaat, and has colored their relationship over many decades.

Milla has tried to preserve everything about her life in diaries, not so much to remember it as to try and create or uncover meaning amid a pile of moments that defy her comprehension. She clings to traces of the past, especially through diaries and maps, and even tries to unearth the past in mirrors:

Does a mirror sometimes preserve everything that has been reflected in it? Is there a record of light, thin membranes compressed layer upon layer that one has to ease apart with the finger-tips so that the colours don’t dissipate, so that the moments don’t blot and the hours don’t run together into inconsequential splotches? […] So many tears for nothing? For light? For bygone moments? (137)

The tragedy for Milla is that rather than finding in these traces a pattern of meaning that had been invisible to her as she moved through each day, she is instead forced to listen to Agaat recount Milla’s own stories to her in a way that elicits more shame and bitterness than reconciliation and healing.

In her final moments, Milla, whose identity has been deeply bound with her farmland since she was a child, craves a connection with her land. Deprived of the ability to move or to speak, she cannot so much as look out the window; instead, she wills Agaat to bring her all the maps of the land that have been stowed away. Her desire is to consume the land, make it ever more deeply a part of her. She wants to swallow and digest the maps: “So that I can be filled and braced from the inside and fortified for the voyage. Because without my world inside me I will contract and congeal, more even than I am now, without speech and without actions and without any purchase upon time” (88). The knowledge that her land continues to exist and thrive comforts Milla, as she feels the land to be an extension of herself. And yet, imprisoned in her body in a sterile room, she desperately feels she must lay eyes on the symbol of the land in order to feel whole before her imminent death.

While Milla’s sense of identity is restricted by her immobility, Agaat’s reveals itself to be far more complicated. I won’t unveil the mysteries of how Agaat came to join Milla’s household or why her acts of caregiving are both conscientious and cruel, but it is clear that she has carved away a part of her identity and made it invisible, as though to protect it. When Milla spies on Agaat as a young women, we learn through her diary that she is startled and confused by what she sees:

Could the binoculars have been playing tricks upon me? Hr arm a pointer? pointing-out pointing-to what is what & who is who? An oar? A blade? Hr fist pressing apart the membrane & the meat as if she’s dressing a slaughter animal? But not a sheep, as if she’s separating the divisions of the night. Or dividing something within herself. Root cluster. (127)

Milla doesn’t know what to make of Agaat’s movements, but the heavy symbolism of Agaat being prepared as an animal for slaughter suggests the depth of the trauma that Agaat has undergone and against which she now steels herself.

Milla and Agaat struggle for power throughout the novel’s timeline, and while Agaat holds much of the real authority on the farm–even getting Milla and Jak to do her bidding in moments of urgency–Milla’s diary reminds the reader (and also Agaat and Milla as the diaries are uncovered and retold) that true power is held by the one who bestows a name. Milla had taught Agaat this very lesson as she tried to coax a young Agaat into speech: “I want Agaat to understand that if you call things by their names, you have power over them”  (439). No matter how great the extent of Agaat’s implicit power, she cannot cease to be dominated by the one who has given her her name. For me, that is the most chilling note of the novel.

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