Customer Review

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An incredibly powerful book, August 16, 2010
This review is from: Agaat (Paperback)
It took me a couple of tries to truly embark on the reading of this hefty novel, which I'd bought on the occasion of my latest trip to South Africa three years ago, where local friends recommended it. But once I got past page 30 or so, I was hooked and couldn't put it down. Agaat is the coloured (not "Black", not "Hottentot", as some reviewers suggested) servant of Milla De Wet, née Redelinghuys, who suffers from a locked-in syndrome and prepares to die. As she does, she reminisces on her past, remembering events that took place (roughly) some 40, 30, 20 and 10 years earlier. All these recollections are organised around the complex, multi-faceted and ambiguous relationship that has developed between these two women. The two male characters in the book (Milla's husband and Milla's son) are part of the picture, but somehow mere background figures in the incredibly powerful stream of feelings, projections and manipulations that bind the two women to one another.

Indeed, "powerful" is the adjective that springs to mind when thinking about this novel, where the reader is trapped and strapped in the position of a mute spectator, as Milla De Wet is during her dying weeks. Marlene van Niekerk has achieved a genuine tour de force on many levels. In addition to the psychological complexity of the characters, the book's narrative structure is elaborate yet perfectly controlled, the style meets the highest literary standards, and van Niekerk also offers a sociological account of life on a farm in the Western Cape in the second half of the 20th century. The constant references to plants and animals gives an almost physical presence to Godmoedersdrift farm, which at times reminded me of other novels by South African authors (e.g. Nadine Gordimer's "Conservationist"). As a man myself, I was also impressed by the skill with which van Niekerk (a woman) invites the reader to look at the world through a woman's eyes, without ever letting herself drift into hackneyed commentary on sexual politics.

Finally, the translation (into English) by Michiel Heyns is simply remarkable. I'm unfortunately unable to read the original Afrikaans (and perhaps I should now re-read the novel translated into my native language, French), but there's no doubt that Heyns has not just transposed the text from Afrikaans to English, but achieved a "literary-ness" (if you'll pass me the expression) that few translations can offer.
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