In musical prose and multiple perspectives, a South African novel tells the story of a dying woman, a dying farm, and a dying country.
We are introduced to Milla de Wet and Agaat Lourier in Milla’s well-kept bedroom in a tidy farmhouse in rural South Africa, and this bedroom is pretty much where the two protagonists stay for the course of Marlene van Niekerk’s gorgeous novel Agaat. Milla is dying of ALS, her body a wasted husk; all she can control any longer are her eyeballs, eyelids, and the poetic and perceptive interior monologue that makes up the bulk of this narrative. To communicate her needs she must rely on a system of winks and blinks, which Agaat (who wears several hats as her nurse, servant, protégé, and de facto adopted daughter) is able to interpret with a depth of understanding that borders on telepathy.
Milla may be trapped in her body, but her imagination remains active. Sometimes, when reflecting on her condition, she can’t seem to decide if she is a terminally ill woman or a terminally ill farm. When Agaat comes to check on her, Milla thinks
She’ll want to judge me in as many categories as she can think up, that’s certain. Sphincter pressure, melting-point, share suction, sowing density, rust resistance, siphon level, tailwind, drainage slope, crimp index, inverse proportion, Sphaeropsis malorum, core rot. O rose thou art sick.
This isn’t a case of delusion, however, but obsession: Milla’s farm, Grootmoedersdrift, is her birthright and life’s work. As she nears the end, she weighs her successes and failures—she had set out to make her property the model farm of the Overberg, South Africa’s breadbasket; her family was meant to be the model South African family. Things haven’t quite worked out the way she’d hoped, but it isn’t for lack of talent. Milla knows everything there is to know about cultivating this farm: the right time to plant, when to let the fields go fallow, how to deliver a breech lamb, how to calm a sick cow. She’s so in tune with the land that she sometimes chides others for forgetting the “old ways” and curses the intrusions of civilization and modernization—as though she were descended from an ancient pastoral race rather than from the Europeans who settled the land by cutting a bloody swath through the native tribes of the region.
Milla’s problems, and her symbolism, run deeper than Grootmoedersdrift—she is not just a sick woman and dying farm but a terminally ill apartheid state as well. Agaat is a clever allegory, a story of apartheid’s four-plus decades told from its waning days. Milla inherited her farm in the late 1940s, when the racist policy was made into law, and is dying in the mid-1990s, around the time of Nelson Mandela’s ascension to the presidency. Van Niekerk has so skillfully crafted her narrative that the ills of apartheid are rarely in the foreground of the novel—and the word itself is only used once—they simply exert a constant, pathological force on the lives of Milla, her family, and her neighbors, whether they choose to notice or not.
Though it makes for a well-designed allegory, exposing apartheid’s injustice isn’t the novel’s main aim. Agaat is an extremely ambitious book, one that works well on many levels. It is a family saga of mothers and daughters; a deconstruction of the Little-House-on-the-Veldt romanticism in which noble white settlers tame a hostile land; a massive, wrenching catalog of illness (physical and metaphysical); and a poetic exploration of control and the loss of control. It’s a stylishly inventive book, with prose written in a beautiful sort of throwback high-Modernist style, married to plot points lifted from South African beach reads.
The central drama is a battle over memory. Throughout the present-tense narrative, Milla attempts to relay her dying wish to Agaat: She wants to study old maps of Grootmoedersdrift one last time. She believes the maps will work as a mnemonic aid and help put her in touch with the property she can no longer survey in person. Agaat understands, but chooses to ignore her. Instead, Agaat has her own mnemonic aid in the form of Milla’s diaries, which she reads out loud by Milla’s bedside.
Agaat’s isn’t ignoring Milla out of neglect. She takes her role as nurse seriously and tends to her patient with ruthless, brutal solicitude. Often her attentiveness is hard to distinguish from torture—when Milla seems a little parched, Agaat forces rooibos tea into her slack mouth through a funnel and tube. Afterwards, Agaat carefully polishes Milla’s teeth with the aid of a wire-frame device that may have been borrowed from A Clockwork Orange.
What is Agaat up to with all this overbearing care of a woman whose body is already mostly dead? Is she trying to make death more dignified or less? More comfortable or merely prolonged? The reader is never allowed into her perspective, so Agaat’s exact intentions can be difficult to interpret. Instead, the story of Agaat and the de Wet family is told through four points-of-view, all of them Milla’s. Through her present-tense observations, remembered episodes of the past, the diary entries that Agaat reads to her, and periodic fugue-state dreams of her illness, we are given versions of her life that are sometimes in agreement and sometimes not. And in the occasional gaps between versions can be found much of what’s most important in the story.
Can memories be trusted? Near Milla’s deathbed is a bookshelf with classics by Faulkner and Henry James, but those are far outnumbered by titles such as The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena and Miss Sophie Flees Forward, South African pulp, stories of farm ladies triumphing over cruel husbands and cruel terrain. As much as her narrative voice can sound like something out of Virginia Woolf, the episodes she remembers often read like one of these cheap romances, except with victimization in place transcendence. There is a lot of sex, for instance, but it is awful and only gets worse.
Lucky for Milla, she has Agaat nearby to help her cut through the shit. Agaat’s self-appointed role is to show Milla that her life is part of a story much vaster and more complicated than she wants to understand. Agaat isn’t out to torture a dying woman. She just wants to upend Milla’s persistent sentiment that her world could have been made perfect if only everything and everyone had been found a proper place. For the reader, the pleasure is watching this realization unfold through a carefully mapped cycle of narrative modes that have an amazing musical logic of structure as well as musicality of language, performed by Milla but with Agaat conducting the whole way.