Communicating with Agaat

Nicole Devarenne

  • Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk
    Tafelberg, 718 pp, R 250.00, August 2004, ISBN 0 624 04206 5
  • A Change of Tongue by Antjie Krog
    Random House (South Africa), 376 pp, R 182.95, September 2003, ISBN 0 9584468 4 9
  • Die Onsigbares by E.K.M. Dido
    Kwela, 223 pp, R 110.00, August 2003, ISBN 0 7957 0158 6

Ten years ago, Marlene van Niekerk published a novel that broke radically with the tradition of Afrikaans writing. Triomf, a grotesque family drama set in a poor white Afrikaner community, part Freudian romance, part political satire, was written in a slangy, polluted Afrikaans intended to infuriate linguistic purists. It showed white supremacist and Afrikaner nationalist ideology as leading logically to incest and inbreeding, and portrayed unflinchingly the mistreatment of its female protagonist, Mol, linking her abuse to white supremacy, with its commitment to the authority of white men, and its policing of white women’s sexuality in the service of so-called ‘racial purity’. The novel was heavily, almost ponderously symbolic, and resisted the aestheticising to be found in much Afrikaans writing, with its sentimental attachment to land and language, and reductive tendency to eroticise the female body and treat it as a site for interracial rapprochement.

Van Niekerk’s new novel is, in some respects, a return to tradition, both in terms of genre (the farm novel) and style. It shares Triomf’s propensity for violence and gruesomeness, its patient attention to the tedium of pain and suffering, even its celebration of colloquial speech, but it lacks its predecessor’s heavy symbolism, its code-switching and linguistic playfulness, its simplicity of structure. In Agaat, Van Niekerk manipulates Afrikaans prosody in inventive and ingenious ways. The novel’s more complex narrative structure, and its passages of self-consciously lyrical prose, make it both easier and more difficult to read than Triomf. Significantly, given the growing prominence of Afrikaans women writers and their increasingly well-articulated insights into the relationship between race, gender and power in South Africa, it engages far more explicitly than Triomf with the connections between a certain kind of land ownership and the physical and sexual abuse of women.

Agaat (Afrikaans for ‘agate’, and also a version of the name Agatha) is the ‘coloured’ house servant, and lately the nurse, of a dying white woman, Kamilla de Wet. It is 1996, and Milla is in the late stages of motor neurone disease; she communicates with Agaat in a language of blinks and meaningful glances. The bond between the women is so strong that their conversations work as if by telepathy, but the relationship is vexed by a continuing power struggle. As Milla remembers her life, it becomes clear that of all her relationships – including those with her parents, her husband and her son – the one with Agaat has been the most important: the most resilient and perplexing. The story is told almost entirely from Milla’s point of view, through first-person narration interwoven with diary extracts from forty years earlier, and her reconstructions of the story suggested, though not fully described, by the diaries.

After several years of marriage to the refined but brutal Jak de Wet, and struggling to manage the running of the family farm, the young Milla finds herself lonely and unloved. Her apparent barrenness does nothing to improve her state of mind or her relationship with her husband, who judges good ground by its fruitfulness. Then, on her mother’s farm, she comes across a half-starved child, the daughter of her own childhood nurse. She rescues (or abducts?) the child from her life of poverty and physical and sexual abuse, renames her Agaat, and takes her in as both daughter and servant. Apartheid adds to the complexity of the relationship, as does Milla’s unexpected pregnancy; after the birth of her son, Milla exiles Agaat to the servants’ quarters, and the girl grows up resentful and secretive. Years later, when Milla is being nursed by Agaat, with her husband dead and her son living in Canada, the power relations are not entirely reversed. Milla (like Susan Barton probing the secrets of the mute Friday in J.M. Coetzee’s Foe) is still demanding to hear the stories Agaat withholds; in response, Agaat offers obfuscation, mimicry, double-speak, as she refuses fully to submit to the role forced on her by colonialism and white supremacy. Exactly how Agaat feels about Milla we never discover – the ‘coloured’ woman is simultaneously the presence and the absence at the centre of the story, fascinating and unreadable.

Agaat owes a great deal to Coetzee, particularly to Foe and Age of Iron. It is also indebted to Afrikaans writers such as Karel Schoeman and C.M. van den Heever although in the latter case Van Niekerk is not so much acknowledging a debt as tearing up an IOU: Van den Heever is one of the founders of the Afrikaans farm novel that Van Niekerk parodies and indicts in both Triomf and Agaat, in an attempt to make clear the inherent racism and misogyny of the formative Afrikaner story of the white man and his land. Agaat is a novel of competing narratives and Milla’s version of the truth, arrived at shortly before her death, can be passed on only to the reader, because she can no longer communicate even with Agaat. Control of the story lies in the hands of someone we neither entirely trust nor entirely like; here as elsewhere, Van Niekerk draws attention to the power structures that permit some voices to be heard, while others are silenced.

In 1998, the Afrikaans poet and journalist Antjie Krog published an account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission entitled Country of My Skull, a mixture of reportage, memoir and transcribed testimony. It recorded the stories of apartheid’s victims, and put them alongside descriptions of the psychological and physiological responses of Krog and her fellow journalists to the atrocities recounted before the TRC. The book was dedicated to ‘every victim who had an Afrikaner surname on her lips’. As well as documenting a crucial moment in South African history, the book was also Krog’s attempt to come to terms with her own and her family’s culpability in what is often viewed as an Afrikaner crime (though she doesn’t ignore British complicity in the making of apartheid South Africa). She begins with a story about Eugene Terre’Blanche, leader of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement), and ends with a request, in verse, to those ‘whom I have wronged’, to ‘please/ take me/with you.’

Krog wrote Country of My Skull in Afrikaans and translated it into English herself for publication. It is, unsurprisingly, preoccupied with language, and with the role played by Afrikaans: ‘How do I live with the fact that all the words used to humiliate, all the orders given to kill, belonged to the language of my heart?’ Krog asks. ‘At the hearings, many of the victims faithfully reproduced these parts of their stories in Afrikaans as proof of the bloody fingerprints on them.’ Krog’s decision to publish the book in English was the result, in part, of a wish to distance herself from her mother tongue.

She depicts the TRC itself, led by Desmond Tutu, as a community that nurtured and sustained her leftist, feminist, non-nationalist Afrikanerness. ‘When I am away from these people,’ she wrote, ‘I falter, I lose faith. I do not want to let go of them ever.’ To some extent, then, Country of My Skull idealised the TRC, though Krog also recorded her differences of opinion with its leaders. If there is an idealised community in her new book, A Change of Tongue, it is a pan-African one. She has been disillusioned by post-apartheid South Africa, yet wants a description of South Africa’s transition that avoids despair, and consults philosophers, linguists, psychiatrists and industrial psychologists, before seizing at last on a metaphor provided by the metamorphosis undergone by the flatfish. The fish alters radically during maturation: an eye moves from one flank to the other, ‘the mouth becomes oblique, the skull changes, the upper side turns dark.’ ‘It seems, then,’ Krog concludes, ‘that one can transform an institution or a country only by changing its essence. This essential change takes place on different levels and in different phases. As for the people in these institutions and places, they cannot transform, but they can change by integrating several social identities: you are no longer only white, but also South African and African.’

This sort of insight isn’t new to postcolonial theorists or students of identity politics, but what is perhaps most interesting about Krog’s work is the tension between the demands of authorial personality and the desire to submerge identity (authorial and otherwise) in a community of others. Krog the Afrikaner is always present, in both Country of My Skull and in A Change of Tongue. At the same time, both books propose self-sacrifice, humiliation and suffering as the solution to the egotism and alienation of being white. In Country of My Skull, exposure to the atrocities of apartheid, in the form of the testimony of TRC witnesses, brought Krog to the edge of a collapse that is presented, ultimately, as redemptive: only by suffering alongside her fellow South Africans could she hope to leave the inviolable privilege of her whiteness behind. By presenting victims’ testimony verbatim, some of Krog’s supporters argued, she was playing ‘host’ to their stories. Her detractors saw things differently, expressing disquiet initially at her appropriation of victims’ narratives, and later at her sale of the film rights to Country of My Skull. The climax of A Change of Tongue involves an arduous pilgrimage to Timbuktu that Krog makes with other African poets. Rescued, through conversation with them, from the ‘quicksand of racist arguments’, and humbled by the poverty and the grace of the Africans she meets along the way, at the end of the pilgrimage Krog describes herself as ‘sorted out and rooted’, affirming her connection to the continent.

A Change of Tongue is also an account of Krog’s childhood and development as a poet: she famously caused a controversy in her small Orange Free State community by publishing a number of sexually and politically explicit poems in her school year book when she was 17. Anyone who was puzzled by the appearance in Country of My Skull of a letter from Krog’s mother lamenting the death of Hendrik Verwoerd, will want to read this account in order to understand the relationship between Krog’s mother’s nationalism and her own somewhat ambivalent liberalism and sense of her literary origins (her mother too was a writer). There is a protracted discussion of the difficulties faced by South African farmers, and of the role of women in farming: Krog shows her mother insisting, in the face of Afrikaner patriarchy, that her daughters have a role in the management of the family farm. As in Triomf, waste is a recurring metaphor, revealing the depth of Krog’s fear that Afrikaners are the waste material of southern Africa, which needs to be disposed of for the health of the larger community to be preserved.

Unlike Krog and Van Niekerk, E.K.M. Dido, the first ‘coloured’ woman to publish a novel in Afrikaans, has received little attention outside South Africa. Most ‘coloured’ writers, descended from the early mixed-race community in the Cape, were until recently overlooked by prize committees and major Afrikaans publishers; not surprisingly, their work has focused on racial injustice and ‘coloured’ Afrikaners’ feelings about having been disenfranchised by white Afrikaners, a people with whom they share a language and, to some extent, a culture.

Dido’s novels portray South African women dealing with a variety of pressures: her protagonists have taken part in the struggle against apartheid; she has shown them coping with racism, domestic abuse, and the conflicting demands of modernity and tradition. Her third novel, ’n Stringetjie Blou Krale (‘A Necklace of Blue Beads’), published in 2000, depicted a black woman who has passed for ‘coloured’ all her life. Her success as a professional woman, wife and mother is due in part to her ability to disguise her true identity from her family and colleagues, and from herself. But at the beginning of the novel, driven almost mad by nightmares, she finds herself depending on the help of a sangoma (a traditional healer and adviser) to solve the mystery of her past. The novel is both a realist narrative and a feminist and postcolonial fable, which proposes the self-empowerment of black and ‘coloured’ women: deserted by her racist husband, Dido’s protagonist eventually comes to acknowledge the many contexts to which she belongs – modernity and tradition, urban ‘colouredness’ and the rural Xhosa culture into which she was born.

Dido’s latest novel, Die Onsigbares (‘The Invisible Ones’), portrays the plight of South African police officers and, particularly, of their families. Underpaid, susceptible to corruption, and targets of frequent murder attempts, Dido’s policemen and women become increasingly disturbed and even violent at home. Joan’s husband, Willem, suffers from depression and anxiety after the murder of his colleague and close friend, De Wit. On the day of his friend’s death, Willem shoots wildly into the grass close to the house, where his family have been eating their dinner. After the incident Joan tries to reassure their unnerved daughters (who have heard stories of police officers murdering their families) and to support her increasingly withdrawn husband. Frightened and frustrated by his refusal of her support, Joan wonders where she might get help. In an outburst to her neighbour, she points out that the day after De Wit’s death a psychologist had ‘held a session with his colleagues so that they could talk about their feelings’. But no one had offered a ‘session’ to the family after Willem’s shooting spree. ‘You’d swear we were invisible!’ Eventually Joan places an advertisement in a national paper, inviting other ‘invisible ones’ to get in touch with her. In this way she comes into contact with the novel’s other protagonists, all wives of police officers.

The novel is Dido’s most ambitious so far, describing the lives of four women of different ethnicities and from different parts of the country. The penultimate section, told from the point of view of a white woman whose husband tries to kill her and their children, is the least constrained by the exigencies of realism. This is Dido’s bleakest book and the final section is suggestive of an important tension in her work, one that she shares with Van Niekerk and Krog, between a desire to be true to the reality of South African women’s lives, and the need to offer some hope to her readers.