Shifting powers

2008-02-01 00:00

Marlene van Niekerk's Agaat is a weighty work which, despite its obvious merits in terms of conception, content and construction, suffers at times from excessive detail. First published in Afrikaans, to critical acclaim, in 2004, the novel has now been translated and is available in a 692-page English version.

Centrally concerned with shifts in power and possession, the novel is set on the farm, Grootmoedersdrift, located in the foothills of the Langeberg in the south western Cape. Inheritrix, Kamilla de Wet, comes into possession of the farm - which has been in her family for generations - in the forties. Eventually, she bequeaths it, in the nineties, to Agaat Lourier, a coloured woman with whom she has had a long and complex relationship over a period of some 43 years. Thus, Grootmoedersdrift is essentially a microcosmic representation of change in South Africa.

Kamilla, unsatisfactorily married to the insecure, shallow Jak de Wet and still childless after six years of marriage, first encounters Agaat when she is a small girl living in impoverished and abusive conditions. Kamilla rescues the child, who has been born with a deformity, nurtures her, educates her and baptises her Agaat. The name resembles that of the semi-precious agate stone and its origins lie in the Greek agathos, meaning good. However, when Kamilla's own son is born, Agaat's status changes from adopted child to paid servant and, more complicatedly, to self-appointed surrogate (and possessive) mother.

In a neat inversion of Kamilla's nurturing of the child Agaat, the adult Agaat nurses, with intimate care, the dying Kamilla, who is gradually - over a period of three years - rendered immobile as a result of a motor neuron disease. Bedridden and speechless, using only her eyes for communication, she is utterly dependent on Agaat, who intuits her needs, tirelessly serves her and reads aloud Kamilla's diaries, which record - in idiosyncratic style - her long relationship with Agaat.

The narrative unfolds through the immediate, unspoken thoughts of the declining Kamilla, through memories of the past, conveyed in the distancing second person (you) and through diary entries, the more recent indicative of her worsening condition.

Certainly, the novel is intelligent and interesting, and deserves to be hailed as a major work. However, a shorter version might prove more compelling.

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