Country Focus: South Africa
By Marlene Van Niekerk
Translated by Michiel Heyns
Originally published in Afrikaans by Tafelberg Publishers, 2004.
My edition: Tin House Books, 2010.
Time period: 1953-1996
Milla De Wet lies paralyzed in her bed on her South African farm. Her husband died years ago, her son lives in Canada, and she refuses care from anyone other than her steadfast servant, Agaat. She communicates with Agaat by blinking; only her eyelids have eluded paralysis. Despite her own disability – a shrunken, deformed right hand – Agaat skillfully and dutifully attends to her white Ounooi‘s every need.
Much to Milla’s consternation, Agaat has found her diaries from decades ago and begun reading them aloud. The entries evoke a past that Milla is none too happy to revisit, including memories of her resentful husband Jak, her distant relationship with her son Jakkie, and a whirl of complex emotions involving Agaat.
The crux of Van Niekerks’ novel is this: How did Agaat come to live on the De Wet farm and garner so much attention from Milla? Milla’s concern and devotion to her black housegirl defies convention in apartheid-era South Africa. Her behavior confuses and offends her husband and neighbors, all strong adherents to their country’s system of racial segregation.
By weaving Milla’s diary entries around her narration of her bed-bound present, her silent reminiscences of as far back as 1953, and some stream-of-consciousness indicative of her oncoming mental meltdown, Van Niekert gradually coaxes Agaat’s mysterious past out of Milla. The story’s climax is as upsetting as it is satisfying and stands as a testament to the evils of apartheid.
Milla is an astoundingly complex creation. She plays the victim as readily as she victimizes others. Agaat elicits a whirlwind of emotions from her: cruelty, awe, jealousy, suspicion, detachment and protection. A guarded pride in Agaat suffuses Milla’s thoughts; the abilities she attributes to the girl make Agaat seem superhuman.
If only Van Niekerk could have more ruthlessly edited the Milla’s tedious descriptions of bathtime, bed pan emptying, and lung clearing. These portions of the novel could do double duty as an invalid care nursing handbook. These medical details may testify to Agaat’s competence and devotion to Milla, but I thought they bogged down an otherwise compelling read.
27 May 1955
Jak says we must make A. [Agaat] move in with Dawid and them and accustom her to her own people. The sooner the better he says, the child will grow up messed-up, she has no playmates. As if he cared one scrap about that. But he is right when he says the white children who come here don’t know any better, they think she’s farm stock & then they snub her.
I protest! She’s an exceptional somebody & she’s developed from the grimmest misery out of just about nothing. Every day I have reason to believe that all my trouble and dedication were not in vain & that the faith I had in the matter and every drop of sweat and tears that I put into her has now started bearing fruit. Everything has a purpose, I say to Jak, she’s been given to me to learn something about myself. To learn what it is that really matters in this life. Jak says I sound like a Jehovah’s Witness on Eau de Cologne. He says he thought I’d achieved total illumination some time ago and it’s not a matter of A. because all I can talk about is myself & I can really spare him my sickly sentimental stories they give him a pain because all he sees in front of him is the worst case of megalomania & control freakery south of the Sahara.