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Out of Africa

Novelist Marlene Van Niekerk joins the ranks of Gordimer and Coetzee with Agaat, her unflinching portrait of the shifting forces shaping South Africa.

Author Aaron Gell Illustration Thomas Allen

WHEN WRITER Marlene Van Niekerk was growing up in South Africa’s Overberg region, her father, who worked for the agriculture department, sometimes brought her along on visits to local farms. On one such call, she was struck by the presence of a young African girl who took care of a white family’s children. This was in the mid-1960s, when apartheid was at its height and the races rarely mixed. “I was fascinated by her,” recalls Niekerk, an Afrikaner.

The girl, Niekerk discovered, had been adopted, and she occupied an unusual position in the household— not quite daughter and not quite servant, but something in between. Years later, she has become the title character of Niekerk’s extraordinary new novel, Agaat, which no less a critic than Nobel laureate Toni Morrison deemed “as brilliant as it is haunting.” Shifting back and forth in time, the book tells the story of the psychologically charged relationship between Agaat and the Boer farmwife Milla, who plucks her out of extreme poverty, turning her into a surrogate child before exploiting her as a housemaid. Decades later, with apartheid on the wane, an aging Milla develops a progressive neurological disorder and is bedridden, unable to move or speak. In a momentous role reversal, Agaat becomes her nurse, her heir and occasionally her tormentor.

In addition to its vivid emotional resonance, Agaat is notable for the wealth of detail it imparts about rural life in South Africa before industrialized farming—everything from four-stage crop rotation to how to counteract tulip poisoning in cattle. “I see it as a way of preserving the language, the farming methods, the folklore—things that are quickly disappearing now,” Niekerk says.

The novel has been read as a political allegory, and Niekerk, whose first book, Triomf, was a scathing dark comedy about a damaged Afrikaner family, acknowledges that the legacy of apartheid is layered throughout her work. “I’m always interested in looking at how intimate power relationships between people are related to bigger forces such as race, class and gender,” she says. Niekerk adds, however, that Agaat’s uncertain status on the farm also parallels her own feelings of alienation as a progressive and a lesbian growing up in a strict Afrikaner household. A writer’s characters are always brought to life, she explains, “by one’s own psychological energies.”

Writing the book was powerful catharsis, recalls the author, who directs the master’s program in creative writing at Stellenbosch University. “I cried the whole time,” she says. “I always try to explore areas that are beyond my comfort zone.”

AARON GELL is editor in chief of Hemispheres.

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