Set in apartheid South Africa, Agaat portrays the unique, forty-year relationship between Milla, a sixty-seven-year-old white woman, and her black maidservant turned caretaker, Agaat. In 1950s South Africa, life for white farmers was full of promise—young and newly married, Milla raised a son and created her own farm out of a swathe of Cape mountainside with Agaat by her side.
By the 1990s, Milla’s family has fallen apart, the country she knew is on the brink of huge change, and all she has left are memories and her proud, contrary, yet affectionate guardian. With haunting, lyrical prose, Marlene van Niekerk creates a story about love and loyalty.
“[Agaat] is absolutely the most extraordinary book I've read in a long time. You must read it.”
"I was immediately mesmerized...Its beauty matches its depth and her achievement is as brilliant as it is haunting."
"Books like 'Agaat'...are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Few books I’ve read carry the visceral impact of Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat. . . it is stunning. . . . each dichotomy—love, sorrow, purity, shame, betrayal, fidelity, goodness, and brute political will—is equally and tragically real."
—Mary Gaitskill, Bookforum
"Clearly an allegory for race relations in South Africa, the novel succeeds on numerous other grounds: a rich evocation of family dynamics; a chilling portrait of bodily and mental decay; and a successful experiment in combining diaries, the second-person, and stream of consciousness."
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"The sweep is as grand as the racial politics in South Africa and as intimate as the longings of one lonely woman for connectedness...This novel stuns with its powerful sense of rigors of farm life, desolation of a failing marriage, and comfort of a long and complex relationship."
—Booklist, Starred Review
"This is a frank novel about a white South African landowner and her lifelong servant in a radically changing country."
—#1 in the "Ten Titles to Pick Up Now" in O, The Oprah Magazine, August 2010
"Lyrical, yet potent prose..."
“Agaat is a tangle of language and rhyme, of wordplay and digressions. . . Both absorbing in its minutiae and provocative in its allegorical approach to apartheid, Agaat explodes the domestic sphere to encompass the world.”
“Van Niekerk has created a work of stunning breadth and emotional potency.”
Unquestionably the most important novel since Coetzee's Disgrace."
—The Times Literary Supplement
"A masterpiece has arrived"
—South African Sunday Times
"Voluminous, detailed, momentous . . . It is an allegory of colonial exploitation, apartheid, and the precarious steps toward reconciliation"
"Fascinating and moving, this is, above all, a love story."
—The Times (London)
"In addition to its vivid emotional resonance, Agaat is notable for the wealth of detail it imparts about rural life in South Africa before industrialized farming..."
The farmers in the vicinity liked inviting you and Jak to their parties, the glamorous, chic, childless couple of Grootmoedersdrift. And if you invited them back they were all too eager to accept. There were harvest festivals, wool festivals, water festivals on Grootmoedersdrift, a festival of triplets in the lambing time, a festival for the new tower silo with automated mowing-trunk and conveyor belt. And your parties were always the swankiest in the region.
Jak was urbane and talkative at these gatherings, as always appreciative of you in front of guests. The festival fairy he called you. Not that he ever lifted a finger to help you. As a matter of fact, nobody knew how much the success of those dinner parties in the late ’50s on Grootmoedersdrift owed to somebody that you could count on at all times. Everybody assumed that it was Jak who was supporting you. Nobody could have guessed that the farming didn’t interest him much. And nobody knew that it was to the back room that you went for comfort when he left you on your own.
You saw how they fell for him, the flocks of twittering wives and the freshly-scrubbed young farmers. He was the pièce de résistance at every occasion. You recognised yourself in them, in the way they couldn’t get enough of him. You could see what they were thinking. How did she contrive it? How can a woman be so lucky?
Their eyelids fluttered at the sight of Jak’s new cars and lorries and implements and innovations, his imported stud bulls and rams. They ogled his fine Italian shoes and the cut of his trousers, and blushed at the casual way in which he turned back his shirtsleeves once over his tanned wrists. All this while you were lightly conversing about books and music, just enough to bind the company around the dinner table while yet leaving everybody free to indulge their flights of fantasy around PrettyJak de Wet.
That suited you fine. You didn’t want to draw attention to Jak’s weaknesses. You wanted to show to advantage yourself. Your job was to camouflage him. Because apart from his Toastmaster’s jokes he didn’t have much in the way of conversation. Headpiece filled with straw. Boast, that he could do, and wittily comment on what he’d read in the papers, the plans of the Party he could explicate, and the mechanisms of his implements, but he was too light-weight for you. Often in that sitting room resounding with laughter, you bit your lip. You wanted him stronger, more independent, less transparent, you wanted him to possess more of himself, of his own substance.
What did you want him to be? An anchor post? A trailblazer? A source of insight? How could you expect him to understand that?
You didn’t understand it yourself. You could only hint and squirm. You were in the shade. That was what angered him without his knowing what was bothering him, this: That you replaced his guts with your own projects.
But when did you start to see it in this light? Not with so much clarity in those first twelve years.
You wanted a child.
And for that he was good enough.
Because that was something you didn’t have. It was in him. His seed.
1 January 1960. The day that you heard that you were pregnant you’d been invited to a New Year’s party on the neighbouring farm Frambooskop for the welcoming of one of the Scott brothers who’d returned from Rhodesia to take over his father’s farm.
You didn’t want to tell Jak immediately. You were all a-flutter. You put on your prettiest dress, a black one with a low neckline and bare shoulders, with sleeves that fell open when you lifted your arms. You’d last worn it on the evening of your engagement. It still fitted you perfectly. It made you blush.
You felt eyes on you, eyes that interrogated you, a face that was unsure of this new mood of yours. But you kept the secret.
Who laid a hand against your arm as if your temperature would warm her? Who touched the hem of your dress? Who twirled over and over again in her hands the tubes and jars and lipsticks that you’d taken out to beautify yourself? Was there somebody who could guess something and wanted to share in your excitement?
No, you were alone. You wanted to be alone. You became a different person. Everything altered in interest and in scale.
Twelve years you had waited, twelve times three hundred and sixty-five days. So you made the sum for yourself over and over again while you were getting dressed. Why should it have happened nów suddenly?
The doctor had phoned an hour earlier with the news.
Good news for the new year, he’d said, I had to go and collect something from the consulting room and then there was the result from Cape Town. Just be careful now, my little woman, he said, you’re a few weeks gone already, remember no emotional upsets, not too much movement in the first few months, no lifting heavy objects, not too much alcohol, not too much rich food, pregnant women are inclined to heartburn.
You took your time over your make-up and you couldn’t stop repeating it to yourself: After all the years, after everything that you’d had to endure, after everything that you’d undertaken, however good or bad, long after you’d given up all hope, the reward.
You smiled at yourself with red lips in the mirror. It had been worth the trouble keeping everything together against all the odds. You caressed your neck. You lifted up your arms and spun around to feel the fall of the sleeves, the swishing of the cloth. You couldn’t remember when last you’d done something so indulgent. It felt as if your limbs, the hair on your head, the nails on your fingers were inspired, as if your body vibrated, your body, always inadequate, always inferior, but now too much, too full. You were filled full with something that for once in your life you had not planned or calculated and of which the execution and the rounding off was not a laboriously artificial and forced affair, but an entirely natural process.
Good heavens, but yóu’re tarted up tonight, what’s got into yóú, Jak said when you came out onto the stoep where he was waiting.
My dear husband, you said, you look so good yourself in that tuxedo of yours and just look at the new bow tie!
You felt it coming out of your mouth. Like a noose it fell around his neck. You drew him nearer, pulled up his cummerbund slightly, adjusted one cufflink, dusted the shoulders of his jacket.
You started laughing. You couldn’t believe it. You no longer needed him so badly. You needed nothing and nobody as badly as before.
What are you laughing at? Jak asked.
Because you look like a model, you said, because I can’t believe it.
So, you think I look good? He inspected himself from all angles in the mirror in the entrance hall while you were grooming him.
Fantastic, you said, absolutely fantastic, you belong in a fashion magazine, in Paris.
Clay in your hands. And you could flatter him from pure generosity.
He could not know it. He had caused it, but he could not know it with his body. It was your knowing alone. In you it was attached, a glomerule of cells that for three weeks already had been sprouting and dividing at its own tempo and with its own plan while you had been eating and sleeping and working.
You noticed that evening how other men looked at you. You looked back, nodded, smiled, felt that you had the right to enjoy yourself.
You look bréathtaking, Beatrice came and whispered in your ear, is there something I don’t know?
And you look stúnning, you said, how are your súckling pigs?
Jak darted you a look.
Over coffee the people at your table bickered over agricultural matters. The new owner of Frambooskop excused himself, clearly didn’t want to get involved in an argument at his own party. It was about profits and costs and optimal utilisation of soil.
Two-stage! Two-stage! everybody shouted and Beatrice’s Thys beat out the syllables on the table with his hand. Wheat, fallow, wheat, fallow, or, better still, wheat on wheat. With the new fertilisers one couldn’t go wrong, was the consensus, bumper crops every year, it was an Overberg miracle. They looked at Jak, who was living proof of the miracle, even though after five years he’d sold the land that had treated him so well to start farming beef cattle.
Jak hit the right notes. The soil analysis laboratory of FOSFANITRA had impressed him from the start, he said.
Modest enough he could be.
With his gentleman’s hands he demonstrated. They could scientifically determine exactly how much phosphate, how much nitrogen, how much potassium one needed per morgen for a good yield.
Scientific or not, I don’t agree, you said.
Jak looked at you, taken aback. You felt yourself blushing, took another sip of wine, but you could also see the people waiting to hear.
That’s a mistake farmers can always make, you said, that they prepare a rod for themselves and their dependants with which everybody will be beaten one day when the wheel turns.
Ag, Milla, what rod and what wheel are you talking of now, my dear wife?
You laughed. He was so hypocritical. “My dear wife” before the guests, my dear tarted-up wife who looks like nothing unless something gets into her.
You were angry, twelve years’ worth of anger. You intercepted quite a few covert glances. People didn’t want to say it out loud, but everybody knew that Dirk du Toit to whom Jak had sold the land on which he had made his profits, was as good as bankrupt. You knew why
I’m speaking of the wheel of Lady Fortune, you said, and I’m speaking of her assistants the moneylenders, my dear husband, they who make themselves indispensable by offering certain essential services and goods on credit, and I’m speaking of monopolies.
They waited for you to continue, the guests, they couldn’t believe their ears.
For farming that’s always a dangerous thing, you said. Here in the Overberg we’ve known it since the days of the Barrys. The lessons of history are there for those who want to take the trouble to study them.
You’re telling mé, said one, I’m still farming today on a little triangular slice of the original round family farm. Staked out way back by my great-grandfather on horseback, a beautiful round farm. He was mortgaged up to his ears to the Barrys’ firm and when they went bankrupt, he lost all his land. From one day to the next he lost everything, he kept just a little sliver like that.
It was a freckly chap from Bredasdorp, a Van Zyl. His jacket sleeves were too short. His thick wrists covered in dense red hair protruded as he described a triangle with his hands to indicate the portion.
Oh my goodness, somebody exclaimed, a slice of pie, but that should be quite enough for you, Flippie!
People laughed at the naughty innuendo, but it didn’t help. There was muted grumbling. The director of the fertiliser business was within earshot and quite a few officials of Agricultural Technical Services gathered around when they heard the subject being broached. You thought, good, let them hear for once by all means.
My point exactly, you said. My mother still has an old five-pound note of theirs. A kind of bank they were, you remember. “Here for you, Barry and Co.” is written on it. So much so that when the whole lot went under just about everything ground to a halt from Port Beaufort, the whole Heidelberg plain, the whole Overberg from Caledon to Riversdal and over the mountain all the way to Worcester.
Well yes, in these days I suppose one has to say Fertilise or button your flies.
That was the contribution of one of the sallow Dieners of Vreugdevol.
The roar that arose, drew more people to the table.
What’s going on here? We also want to hear! What’s the joke?
Jak was uncomfortable. He tried, but he couldn’t get up because people were crowding around the table. He fumbled with his bow tie, took large gulps from his glass.
Ask Milla de Wet! one called out, she started it. Ask Jak, looks like she’s got him under her thumb!
You were angry, but your secret of the day made you impetuous. Jak would just have to look after himself for once, you thought.
Look at the condition of the soil, you said. Thinner and poorer by the year. Just look at the dust when the wind blows before sowing-time, look how it erodes in winter. From sowing wheat all the time. From greed. And from worry. Because the bought-on-credit fertiliser still has to be paid off. And the Land Bank is squeezing.
That’s right! Round and round on the merry-go-round all the way into the ground!
That was Dirk du Toit, who’d bought Jak’s land.
Tell them, Dirk, I called, tell them what happened to you, you see they don’t want to believe me.
Dirk made a cutting motion across his throat.
Yes, I owed them. Then they forced me to sell all my wheat to them, at cost. Their idea is, it’s our fertiliser, so it’s our wheat. Then they sell it again, then they keep the profit.
Everybody started talking at the same time. Out of the corner of your eye you saw Adriaan, one of the Meyers brothers, owners of the fertiliser company, surveying the palaver, a parsimonious little smile round the corners of his mouth.
You tapped on your glass with your knife.
Listen, you said, that’s not all, the real point is this …
Aitsa! the little four-share plough of Grootmoedersdrift! Now she’s going for the middle furrow!
It was Gawie Tredoux of Vleitjies. He was United Party by birth and a Freemason and he liked you. He passed along a glass of dessert wine to you. You lifted it in his direction and took a sip, put your finger in front of your lips, indicated that you couldn’t drink too much. Oh come on, he gesticulated back and took a big gulp from his own glass. You put your hand on your stomach. So? he signalled with his eyebrows. Really? You nodded. He raised his glass high: Congratulations! Jak intercepted the exchange. You smiled sweetly at him before speaking again.
The real point is: The Overberg is the bread basket of the whole country. Remember: Good wheat and good bread, and the nation’s well fed.
She’s a poet and she doesn’t know it! somebody shouted and rapped on the table.
Jak looked away.
You knew of one more supporter at the table, the new young extension officer, Kosie Greeff. The little chap glanced around somewhat anxiously when he saw that you wanted to say something. His wife looked at the glass in your hand. Beatrice as well, all the women at the table thought that when a woman opened her mouth like thát in male company it had to be because she was tipsy.
You’re welcome to look as much as you like, you thought to yourself and smiled at Beatrice.
It was young Greeff who’d convinced you of the new rotational system. He was having an uphill battle in the region. Now he was red in the face because it was his area of expertise that had cropped up in discussion.
Mrs de Wet is right, he said, and what’s more, gentlemen, the soil problem in the hill country is a bigger problem that the so-called colour problem.
I agree, you exclaimed. You were in full flow now, you could hear you were preaching, but you kept at it.
You can’t take more out of the soil than you put into it, you said. And here we are now, a little group of people at the southern tip of Africa in the process of totally destroying this national asset within the space of a few decades. All the fertiliser crops may make you rich, but it’s not a long-term investment in the soil. Fallow is the answer. It’s a tradition born of respect for nature. In a state of pseudo-death you restore your substance. Even a frog knows that.
Hear hear! the people shouted.
Froggy went a-courting and he did ride, red-faced Flippie sang with a suggestive fillip to his voice.
A commotion erupted.
Beatrice looked at you dumbfounded.
Milla, please, stop, you’re making a fool of yourself, Jak said under his breath, his voice hoarse with irritation.
Give her a chance, chaps, Gawie shouted, such an opportunity you won’t get again soon!
You fixed their eyes as you spoke.
It’s the rhythms of nature that you have to respect as the Creator determined them. That’s what agriculture should be based on. This new greed is barbaric, it’s a form of sacrilege.
And then a thought came up in you and you said it before you thought about it. Perhaps the sips of wine together with your exhilaration had gone to your head.
If a farmer clears and levels his land year after year it’s as good as beating his wife every night. In a manner of speaking, you added, but the words were out and they had been spoken.
You saw Beatrice gasping for breath and putting her hand in front of her mouth.
A heavy silence descended.
Gawie came to your rescue.
Food for thought, chaps, definitely food for thought, let’s hear what Thys wants to say, he looks as if he’s going to burst a blood vessel if he’s not given a turn.
Nów it’s enough, Jak hissed, nów we’re leaving, you and I.
At the door Gawie greeted the two of you. You he kissed on the cheek and pressed your shoulder.
Congratulations, Jak old friend, you married a first-rate wife, look after her well.
He shook Jak’s hand emphatically, but Jak didn’t know what it was all about. He released his hand quickly.
He got into the car and slammed his door without opening the door for you. Of that he normally made a big show in front of other people.
It was rally-driving all the way home.
Good God, yóu, Jak swore, think you know everything!
At home he staggered out of the car and urinated against the first tree. He swayed on his legs, he was so drunk.
Your mouth is too big! he shouted as he entered the front door.
You went to your room, heard him pour himself a whisky from the carafe in the sitting room.
He came to look for you in the bedroom, came to stand in the doorway, and glared at you.
Jak, I have something to tell you, you said.
So, and what could that be? That you have something on the go with Tredoux?
Jak, he’s our friend, he was just congratulating you.
And on what, may I ask? On your speech? What gives you the idea that you can sit and preach to farmers on how to cultivate their lands? What must they think of me? You and your mother, you’re tarts of one crust, you think you know it all. How am I supposed to show my face ever again at the fertiliser company?
Jak, I said, I can’t help your feeling like that.
Come here, you said to soothe him.
He stood in the middle of the room plucking at his clothes.
And that soil is like a woman whose husband beats her! What kind of crap is that, I ask you? You’re looking for it, you know it, you’re looking for me and you’ll look for me till you find me!
Yes baas, you said to him.
He wasn’t used to that. You stared into the slap without ducking, straight into his eyes.
Jak, you can’t do that to me any more, you said.
He shoved you back onto the bed.
If you want to be my soil, I’ll do on it as I want to. Slapping is nothing! Shoving is child’s play! Now tell me, pray, what kind of soil are you? Clay, perhaps? Dirt? Shale? A bloody rock-ridge? Come on, you’re supposed to be the expert here! Grade yourself for us, perhaps it will be of use to the man who has to plough you!
You got up from the bed. He knocked you flat again.
What does one do with soil, eh? What does one do with it?
You drive a post into it, you grub it, you quarry out a dam! Or you dig a hole for yourself and fall your arse off into it. That’s what happened to mé!
He approached threateningly. You held your arms around your stomach. You saw him noticing it. You altered your gesture, you stroked your abdomen.
Jak, you said and put your foot on the arm of a chair, you pulled your dress up into your groin and started undoing your suspender, won’t you please undo my zip?
Do it yourself, he mumbled.
But from his tone you could tell that you had him where you wanted him. You didn’t even have to look in his direction. He stood rocking on his legs, glared at you with bleary eyes.
You undid the zip and stepped out of the dress, unfastened your other stocking and slowly rolled it down your thigh while you looked at him. You slid the straps of your black petticoat over your shoulders and went and lay down on the bed.
What does one call that? So spread open? You wanted to feel it, his powerlessness. It excited you to wait for it. You felt you had the advantage, for the first time.
He was very rough. He just unzipped his trousers and half pulled you off the bed. On your knees against the bed he forced you. He tore your petticoat and gripped your wrists. You turned your head to see it.
Look in front of you! Look in front of you! he yelled and slapped you against the head.
Jak, you should be ashamed of yourself, you said. But you heard your voice. There was a kink in the words. You were in it together, in the shame.
Whore! Jak shouted, whore!
You laughed, that was what you did. You thought you saw a movement in the mirror but there was nothing. There were only the two of you. You and your shadows, it was the red cummerbund, it was the rags of black petticoat over your white shoulders.
What are you looking at? he shouted.
He grabbed a footstool with one hand and threw it at the mirror and shattered it.
He rammed himself into you.
You fastened your hands around the back of his hips and pulled him deeper into you. You dictated a rhythm. For yourself.
Come now, you whispered, you’re still the best, come now. We’re made for each other!
That was what you heard yourself say. You wanted to feel it. Dry. Sore. Good. You had him where you wanted him, you were done with him, he was good only for decoration. To know that, was the reward.
I have something to tell you, you said when he was done.
He leant against you in a daze.
I am pregnant, Jak, you said, and if you ever lift your hand against me again, I will sell the farm and leave you and take your child with me and you will never see him again.
He was too numb to answer back. He half-crawled over you onto the bed and drifted into sleep. His penis dangled out. It looked like a piece of intestine.
A son, he mumbled.
He flung his arm across the pillow and straightened his legs, foot on your face where you were lying at the end of the bed.
You pushed his feet out of your face. You looked at yourself in the shattered mirror until he started snoring. Then you went and ran a bath and lay in it for hours adding hot water. You listened to the sounds of the house.
Before going to sleep, you picked up the shards of mirror and gathered your torn clothes in a bundle and threw them away in the bin in the backyard. The side panels of the mirror were undamaged. You turned the panels towards each other and inspected yourself from one side and the other. You couldn’t get enough. After twelve years of despoilment you, Milla de Wet née Redelinghuys, were going to be a mother.
You folded the wings of the mirror so that in the morning the damage to the central panel would not be visible.
1. When we encounter Milla in the present, she’s condemned to silence by ALS, a motor neuron disease. As she contemplates her life and mines her memories, do you think she’s proud of the life she’s led?
2. AGAAT is told non-linearly; what do you think van Niekerk can accomplish with that structure that wouldn’t be possible otherwise?
3. Milla’s relationship with Agaat changes rather drastically after Jakkie is born. How does Agaat handle the changes?
4. Milla’s farm is called Grootmoedersdrift, which translates to Grandmother’s Crossing or Grandmother’s Drift. It had been passed down through the women in Milla’s family; how would you describe the relationship between Milla and her mother? Do you see any similarities between their relationship and Milla’s relationship with Agaat?
5. In what ways do you feel AGAAT is an allegory for apartheid? Discuss.
6. We only see Jak, Milla’s husband, through Milla’s eyes. Were you able to find him sympathetic at all?
7. As close as Milla’s son, Jakkie, and Agaat once were, in the end he thinks of her as an “Apartheid Cyborg. Assembled from loose components plus audiotape.” What do you think he means?
8. Agaat’s position in the home creates strained relationships with the other servants on the farm, leaving Agaat not fully part of their world nor the world of the white farm owners. Do you think Agaat is resentful of her position?
9. The author has in interviews describes Milla as a “vampire.” Does this seem fair to you? Why or why not?
10. When Agaat takes over the farm, what can you imagine her doing differently?