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Marlene van Niekerk: Agaat (UK: The Way of the Women; US, SA: Agaat)

I am not sure why the British changed the title. It is usually US readers who are felt not able to cope with anything that sounds foreign – Agaat is the Afrikaans for Agatha (which means good in Greek). I am not quite sure what Way of the Women means in this book, except, of course, that this book is about Agaat and Milla who are, indeed, both women. Milla is a white South African woman, daughter of farmers. At the start of the book she is an old woman who is suffering from motor neurone disease, which makes her unable to talk and, indeed, unable to communicate much beyond blinking her eyes. She tries to write but cannot manage even one letter. She is looked after by an African woman, Agaat. Only gradually, over the course of this long book, do we learn the origins of Agaat and why she is looking after Milla. The story is told in alternating sections, with Milla’s current struggles and then her memories of her past and Agaat’s past.

We only really start to learn about Milla when she is dating Jak de Wet. Jak seems to be everything a young woman could want. He was rich, he was well educated, he was attractive, witty and well-spoken, and well-liked by people. He was everything that you felt that you were not.. Milla, who by her own admission, is not very pretty, is happy to be marrying him. The problems start even before they are married, when he beats her. She goes ahead with marriage and finds that he is, indeed, a violent man, raping her more than once and striking her and others, including the native staff. (Who is this beautiful man? you wondered. What has he got in him? Nobody can be so beautiful from the outside and so hollow from the inside.) Her mother had inherited a farm from her parents – Grootmoedersdrift – but this was not Milla’s parents’ main farm. Milla and Jak are to take it over but Milla’s mother insists that Jak must take a farming diploma beforehand. He reluctantly agrees but we later learn that he has attended very few classes and not done any of the practical work. Her parents spends some money on doing the farmhouse up.

The next big clash occurs when they discuss how they are to farm the property. Milla has been brought up the old-fashioned way – careful four-stage rotation, green fertilisers and nurturing of the soil, using crops that are suitable for the conditions in the area. Jak wants quick results and modern techniques. (It’s all about synergies, Jak, you tried to staunch the flow, a game one has to play. With nature. It’s subtle. Nature is subtle and complex.) When she insists on doing it her way, he buys up a piece of land, heavily fertilises it and has splendid results with his crops. After five years, he sells the plot. His successor goes bankrupt, as the soil is exhausted. There are disagreements over many issues, including, in particular, his treatment of the native population – he is very racist – and the farm. He buys in cattle from South-West Africa but they get ill when they eat plants that they are not supposed to, which Milla’s Jersey cattle know to ignore. Sex is also an issue. She had hoped for a child but none is forthcoming, not helped by the fact that he prefers oral sex.

Agaat was born on their land but had been abandoned as a child. She had one stunted arm. Milla rescues her. She turns out to be very intelligent. Milla almost adopts her, taking her into the house (to the resentment of some of the native people) where she becomes almost a friend and almost a daughter, a confidante, a support as well as something of an expert on many aspects of managing the farm. For example, it is Agaat, aged thirteen, who manages efforts to purge all the sick cattle that eat the wrong plants, as many of the men are out getting drunk, as it is a Saturday. Of course, Jak resents her more than do the others. When Milla finally becomes pregnant, it is Agaat, of course, who helps and Agaat who looks after the child, Jakkie, so much so that Jakkie becomes very attached to her, to the disgust of his father, who wants to make Jakkie a man in his own image and to the horror of his mother, who feels that she has lost him to Agaat. Jak is an enthusiastic sportsman as well as a keen Afrikaner nationalist. As a result, he is very happy when his son joins the South African Air Force and is a fighter pilot in the war against the Cubans in Angola, recording many kills. Jak, however, is devastated when Jakkie’s views change and he deserts and flees to Canada.

The comparison between the two periods is inevitable. When Milla was younger, Agaat was, as a child, at least partially dependent on Milla, to protect her, not least from Jak. However, now, the roles have, of course, been reversed. Van Niekerk shows this very well. While we had seen Agaat’s resentment when she was younger, it remained fairly downplayed. Similarly, Milla, whose thoughts we follow, both appreciates the fact that Agaat is looking after her – Jak is long since dead and Jakkie is in Canada – but is almost somewhat resentful of the way Agaat treats her at times. Indeed, Agaat is, at times, somewhat sadistic in her treatment of the helpless Milla. However, this is one of the most assured parts of the book, as van Niekerk superbly depicts Milla’s thoughts and concerns, while she observes Agaat and thinks about her past life.

The story is told by Milla, though, confusingly, she tells it in the second person. We also get excerpts from her detailed diaries as well as some of the occasional thoughts of Agaat. The framing story, at the beginning and at the end, is Jakkie’s as he arrives for and leaves after his mother’s funeral. But the story is about women coping and women often having to be strong. Jak was right about your mother. She had finished off your father. It is Agaat who often shows her strength. Milla is suspicious of her because not only does she take charge when there is a crisis – the sick cattle, two fires – she always seems to be the first to be aware of the problem and the first to deal with it. Is Agaat responsible for these crises, Milla wonders and, indeed, asks her. Agaat’s response is vague. The men are weak. Jak tries hard to be a tough man, entering various races, but, by the end is shown for what he is, a weak wife-beater. Even Jakkie all too often follows leaders – Agaat, his father and then the Air Force, before finally making his own decision. But, overall, this is a superb novel about women struggling and women coping and, at times, women failing. We must be grateful that is has been translated from the Afrikaans.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Tafelberg
First English translation by Tin House Books in 2006
Translated by Michiel Heyns