I’m reading one of the great novels of our time. I’m doing so slowly because it’s in Afrikaans, and although I learned the language for many years in South African schools, that was a very long time ago. The novel is Agaat, its title both a proper name (Agatha) and the Afrikaans word for “agate”; the author, Marlene van Niekerk, is a leading Afrikaans poet as well as novelist and short-story writer.1 Luckily, I have at hand the superb translation by Michiel Heyns, the version in which I first encountered the novel.2 A film of Agaat is said to be in preproduction, but however successful it turns out to be, it will be able to convey only a glimmer of Van Niekerk’s achievement.
The origins of Afrikaans lie in the contact at the Cape of Good Hope among Dutch settlers, slaves from the Dutch territories in the East, and indigenous peoples, a creolization process that began in the late 17th century. A standard version of Afrikaans was established during the last third of the 19th century, partly in opposition to the dominance of English, and in 1925 it displaced Dutch as one of South Africa’s two official languages. With the triumph of the National Party in 1948, it became the language of government and thus of apartheid, a stigma that still attaches to it in many minds.
However, of the 7 or 8 million people who speak Afrikaans as a first language, more than half are what the apartheid classifiers termed “coloured” (that is, “mixed race”) peoples, whose variety of the language, sometimes called “Kaaps,” was dismissed by the upholders of the idea of a “pure” Afrikaans during the apartheid era.3 There is not yet a substantial body of literature in Kaaps, in spite of the pioneering work of Adam Small, but the recent poetry of Nathan Trantraal and Ronelda Kamfer shows how rich a resource the language offers.4
As only one of the contemporary country’s 11 official languages, and no longer bearing any political privileges, Afrikaans is now under threat. The proportion of Afrikaans speakers who read literary fiction is tiny, and writers must rely on translations to reach a wider readership. Despite these conditions, the language has seen a remarkable flourishing since the ending of apartheid in 1994. At that juncture it became easier to challenge the myth of a pure language; “Afrikaans” could be seen more clearly as a spectrum of speech practices, often intermingling with English and indigenous tongues. Van Niekerk’s ambitious first novel, Triomf, published in that year, uses the language spoken by poor white Afrikaners, a far cry from the Afrikaans of the academy, while Agaat draws on the specialized languages of farming and embroidery—two long-standing features of Afrikaner culture—as well as the heritage of Afrikaans popular song.5
The current health of Afrikaans fiction can be judged by the appearance in 2017 alone of several highly original and ambitious novels. Two of these track across the world as protagonists uncover hidden pasts, evidence of a new willingness to leave the borders of South Africa. Etienne van Heerden’s 12th novel, Die wêreld van Charlie Oeng (The World of Charlie Oeng), takes place in South Africa, Amsterdam, and Hong Kong, while S. J. Naudé’s Die derde spoel moves from London to Berlin and South Africa. While the former has yet to be translated, the latter appeared simultaneously in the author’s own English version, The Third Reel—a double publication following in the footsteps of his first work, the outstanding short story collection Alfabet van die voëls (2011), which was published in his English translation as The Alphabet of Birds in 2014.
Despite challenging conditions, Afrikaans has seen a remarkable flourishing since the ending of apartheid in 1994.
Other Afrikaans works from 2017 challenge the generic boundaries of the novel. One is a posthumous publication by the late Karel Schoeman, one of South Africa’s most prolific and respected authors (his 50-plus books include 19 novels, most not translated into English). Titled Skepelinge: Aanloop tot ’n roman (Seafarers: Approach to a Novel), it weaves together Dutch archival materials, English poetry, and the writer’s own meditations to present a complex picture of the 17th- and 18th-century travelers by sea from the Netherlands to the Cape. Another is Hierdie Huis (This House), an extraordinary autobiography by Fanie de Villiers, writing under the pseudonym Kleinboer. The last in a trilogy recounting a life lived at the edgy intersection of races and classes in Johannesburg, it is graphic in every sense (the pages are laced with tables illustrating the author’s obsession with the state lottery).
Last year also saw the appearance of an English translation, again by Heyns, of a novel by one of the most singular and intriguing of Afrikaans writers, Ingrid Winterbach. Originally published in 2015, Vlakwater (translated as The Shallows), like all the author’s work, both lures and teases the reader with its near opacities and wry displacements. Winterbach has published 11 novels (5 under a pseudonym, Lettie Viljoen). Her more recent works, all of which have been translated, portray, with an undercurrent of irony, the tribulations of individuals caught up in mysterious, sometimes violent, plots: Die boek van toeval en toeverlaat (2006), translated by the author with Dirk Winterbach as The Book of Happenstance (2008); Die benederyk (2010), translated by Leon de Kock as The Road of Excess (2014); and Die aanspraak van lewende wesens (2012), translated by Heyns as It Might Get Loud (2015).
Other Afrikaans novelists who have published important work in recent years include Dan Sleigh, whose massive 1795 appeared in 2016, a successor to his equally substantial Eilande (2002; translated by André Brink as Islands, 2004); both novels rely on the meticulous historical recovery of earlier periods in South Africa’s time as a Dutch colony. Perhaps more of an acquired taste, Eben Venter’s Wolf, Wolf appeared in the original Afrikaans and in an English translation by Heyns in 2014, not as nightmarish a work as Horrelpoot (2006; translated by Luke Stubbs as Trencherman, 2008), his rewriting of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Van Niekerk’s own most recent major fictional work is Memorandum: ’n verhaal met skilderye (Memorandum: A Story with Paintings), published in 2006 in conjunction with Heyns’s translation: a remarkable work juxtaposing a fiction about a minor municipal official facing death with the last paintings of Adriaan van Zyl.
But to get back to Van Niekerk’s Agaat. It’s a long novel, and not light reading, but perseverance is fully rewarded—it is moving, instructive, and thoroughly engrossing. There is a plot of family secrets and revelations, but more important than the events of the story are the superbly realized psychological, interpersonal, and material worlds that it inhabits, and that the reader soon finds herself inhabiting too.
Agaat’s very specificity in time and place is what, paradoxically perhaps, makes it so universally accessible. For most of the book, the present is 1996, the place the rich farming country of the Overberg region of South Africa, some 150 miles east of Cape Town, and the central consciousness that of 70-year-old Milla de Wet, the former matriarchal presence on the farm Grootmoedersdrift (Grandmother’s Crossing), a woman who is now in the last stages of the motor neuron disease ALS.
Milla can communicate only by blinking—until that, too, becomes impossible. She is being tended by a coloured woman in her late 40s, Agaat Lourier, whose relationship with Milla is at the heart of the book, although the story of that relationship emerges only gradually through four interwoven strands, each using a distinctive mode of narration. The spine of the narrative is made up of Milla’s thoughts in the present, a gripping, intense representation of a rich but tortured life experienced entirely in the mind, as the disease makes bodily functions harder and harder, and communication with Agaat becomes a greater and greater struggle. One small example will have to suffice.
In the early part of the novel, Milla, after swallowing three teaspoons of porridge with great difficulty, tries to convey to Agaat that she wishes to look once more at the maps of the farm, and Van Niekerk captures both the physical effort and the frustration involved—especially the frustration at being misunderstood:
The third swallow exhausts me. I close my eyes, bit by bit I manage to filter it through. When at last it’s down, I open my eyes, I open my mouth and I try to say m. I know very well how it’s done. I must close my mouth, take my tongue out of the way, press my lips together and breathe out quickly, abruptly, through my nose, and open my mouth a soft nasal plop. A short, humming sound it must be, unvoiced, a vibration as brief as a second, a whimper of pain, a murmur of assent. M for map.
Gaat rushes to my aid.
Are you choking, Ounooi? Wait, wait, I’ll help you. Calmly now. Just a small breath now and then swallow and breathe out. Swallow, Ounooi, swallow, I’ll rub, come now, swallow just once.
(This extract illustrates some of the challenges of translation: in the original Afrikaans, Milla wants to look at the “kaarte,” and so is trying to pronounce k—and hence the description of the vocal movements is quite different. Heyns worked closely with Van Niekerk, so presumably the alteration was an agreed solution to an intractable problem. Heyns wisely retains the Afrikaans “Ounooi,” for which there is no English equivalent; it could be deferential, but it could also be spoken with a hint of mockery.)
Interspersed with this strand is the story of Milla’s life from her engagement to the dashing but impractical and intolerant Jak de Wet in 1946 to his death in 1985, a story addressed to herself in the second person as a series of memories. It ends with a recollection, out of chronological sequence, of the inaugural event in 1953 that allowed the malnourished and malformed child discovered crouching in the fireplace of a hovel to become the cherished foster daughter, “Asgat”—ash bottom—becoming “Agaat” (from the Greek for “good”). The closing words of this recollection create an echo of the passage that the reader encountered over five hundred pages earlier, and that I have just quoted—though the two events took place 43 years apart:
You held the dropper of valerian at the ready and on entering grabbed the child, clamped fast her head, forced open her mouth. You felt something snapping in you over the way you were treating her. The only remedy, you told yourself. You pinched shut her nose so that she had to swallow the sleeping pill as well. You rubbed her gullet hard. You could feel the little rings of cartilage under your fingers.
Swallow, you hissed, swallow so that you can calm down, swallow, I’m not taking any more nonsense from you.
A third interpolated strand that runs through the novel consists of Milla’s diaries, which Agaat is reading out to her bedridden mistress. This strand begins with another pivotal event in the history of the relationship, Milla’s pregnancy in 1960 and the consequent relegation, without any comprehension of its psychological effect, of the 12-year-old foster daughter to the status of servant. It ends in 1979 with Agaat’s 31st birthday. A second sequence from the diaries follows, taking the reader back in time to the events from Agaat’s adoption to Milla’s pregnancy. This second sequence from the diaries begins, chronologically, immediately after the memory related in the previous extract:
Wednesday 16 December quarter past three (day one Day of the Covenant!)
The great clean-up has begun. She’s still groggy with the valerian. I thought I’d grasp my opportunity. Cut off the hair and washed with tar medicine and then with shampoo and applied ointment. Bad ringworm. Fiddled out the gouts of ear wax with matches and cotton wool and cut the nails. Big struggle to get the teeth brushed. Gums inflamed, lots of rotten teeth. Milk teeth fortunately, must be extracted, the whole lot while we’re about it. Disinfected the mouth with extract of cloves. The whole body first rubbed with oils and then soaked in a hot bath for half an hour, afterwards scrubbed down with hard sponge and nailbrush and soap. Scabs, raw patches everywhere. Half limp, the little body. Eyes keep falling shut. Look at me, Asgat, I say, everything will turn out all right. Must think up another name.
The progress of Milla’s illness—which appears to have started in 1993—is charted in a fourth strand, this one in short, italicized, largely unpunctuated streams of consciousness. One recognizable stage is indicated as follows:
this is how you do it you lean forward on the crossbar who says it’s like walking with a little table but without the top? Don’t look at your feet your feet are of no importance you drag them after your legs you keep straight you make a rigid knee the other one is like walking with the tea-trolley but without the tea you roll ahead you drag behind the wheels are braked you can adjust them if they turn too easily you fall
who shall tell the walker from the frame? and the wheel from the revolution? the imitator from the imitated?
A viewpoint other than Milla’s is provided in short sections bookending the novel. These feature the interior monologue of Jakkie, her son, on his way from Canada, where he has lived for nearly 12 years and whence he has been summoned by a telegram from Agaat informing him that his mother is dying. His flight back to Canada after the funeral closes the book.
The extracts I’ve given here provide a hint, though only that, of the way the different styles and modes of narrative work to deepen and intensify the subject matter. The history of the relationship between Milla and Agaat gradually emerges from these varied strands; above all is the reversal of power as the daughter turned servant becomes the nurse. Yet in both cases, the exercise of power is complicated: severity comes across as an expression of a kind of love.
Milla’s act of taking the child away from a home in which she has suffered terrible mistreatment is done with good intentions, and until her own pregnancy she shows a generosity toward the girl that earns her the reproaches of her fellow whites. (The wife of the dominee, or minister, accuses her of “subtly undermining community values.”) Even in her treatment of Agaat as a servant Milla believes she is being generous, and her racially rooted harshness is a product of values imbibed from her culture.
As for Agaat’s power over Milla in the three years of the disease, it is exercised in meticulous and thorough nursing care that often comes across—to Milla, at any rate—as vindictive heartlessness, retribution for all those years of subservience. In the first passage quoted above, we can’t know (and Milla doesn’t know) if Agaat’s misunderstanding is real or feigned. And the reading and rereading of the diaries (some passages of which Agaat can recite from memory), recording as they do Milla’s blindness to the needs and feelings of the girl she believed she was treating benevolently, are part of Agaat’s fierce reckoning.
There’s a great deal more in the detail of the novel: the intricacies of Agaat’s embroidery as an aspect of her power, from her cap—“Her crown of glorified cotton, her mitre, her fire-barrel specked with light, that gives her dominion over the underworld”—to Milla’s shroud; the daily patterns of farming life that often become a source of tension between Milla and Jak; the souring of what had seemed a promising marriage; the growing closeness between Jakkie and Agaat, and Milla’s consequent sense of exclusion; the clashes between Jakkie and his father over what constitutes “manliness”; and much else.
It’s a remarkable exploration of the interweaving of power, love, need, and hate in human relationships, and the place of race, gender, class, and ideology in that complex knot. We are made to feel, in piercing detail, how to be well-meaning is not necessarily to be just, and how ingrained attitudes can deform the way we treat one another.
We have to stand back a little from the absorbing detail of the novel to appreciate its engagement with less universal but no less important issues: the particular history of South Africa in the 50 years covered by the novel, from 1946—two years before the Afrikaner National Party came into power—to 1996, two years after the first democratic elections installed the African National Congress in government and Nelson Mandela in the presidency. We don’t get many overt references to the political events during this period (the assassination of Prime Minister Verwoerd in 1966 gets a brief mention, and there’s a casual reference to Milla’s voting for the National Party), although Jakkie’s three-year service as a fighter pilot, including the bombing of guerrillas on South Africa’s borders, brings home the conflicts between the apartheid state and its opponents in the 1980s. And Milla’s death leads to a state of affairs unthinkable during the apartheid years and emblematic of the new order: Agaat, the coloured servant, inherits the farm, the plaas, for so long one of the sacrosanct places in the Afrikaner imagination. Van Niekerk’s novel is an intimate yet radical engagement with Afrikaner culture that is at the same time a major contribution to the world’s literature.
This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley.
- Agaat was originally published, by Tafelberg (South Africa), in 2004. The title is pronounced with the /x/ sound of Bach. ↩
- South African publishers Jonathan Ball brought out the Heyns translation in 2006; Little, Brown UK published it as The Way of the Women in 2007; the current reissue, by Tin House, reverts to the original title. ↩
- The most recent census took place in 2011, when the number of first-language Afrikaans speakers recorded was a little under 7 million. Numbers have undoubtedly grown significantly since then. I use the South African spelling of “coloured” to distinguish it from American usage of the term with a different meaning. ↩
- For 60 years until his death in 2016, Small was the preeminent writer using Kaaps, producing memorable work in poetry, drama, and fiction. Trantraal’s best-known collection is Chokers en survivors (2013); Kamfer’s is Noudat slapende honde (2008). ↩
- See Colin Dayan’s excellent account of Triomf, “Into the Crud,” in Public Books, March 6, 2013. Two English translations by Leon de Kock, one for the South African and one for the international market, were published in 1999. ↩