A South African novel explores apartheid-era servitude
by Marlene Van Niekerk
translation by Michiel Heyns
Tin House Books
$19.95 List Price
Few books I've read carry the visceral impact of Marlene van Niekerk's Agaat; it is the South African writer's second novel and fifth book, and it is stunning. Set in the apartheid era of the 1950s into the '90s, on a dairy farm contentiously run by a desperately unhappy white couple, Milla and Jak de Wet, and their half-adopted, half-enslaved black maid, Agaat, it is about institutional racial violence, intimate domestic violence, human violence against the natural world, pride, folly, self-deception, and the innately mixed, sometimes debased nature of human love. It is especially about how this mixed nature is expressed through the deep and complex language of the body; I don't believe I've ever read a book that so powerfully translates this physical language into printed words.
Agaat is narrated almost entirely by Milla, a strong-minded, verbally sophisticated, emotionally bereft Afrikaans woman paralyzed in old age by a motor-neuron disease, unable to communicate except with her eyes, and only then to Agaat, with whom she long had an anguished and loving bond and who cares for her on an all too intimate level. Here, for example, is Agaat cleaning Milla's mouth:
Say "ah" for doctor, says Agaat. I close my eyes. What have I done wrong? The little mole-hand nuzzles out my tongue. . . . The screw has squashed it in my mouth. My tongue is being staked out for its turn at ablution. The sponge is rough. With vigorous strokes my tongue is scrubbed down. . . . Three times the sponge is recharged before Agaat is satisfied. My tongue feels eradicated.
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