Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk tr. Michiel Heyns

Marlene Van Niekerk was one of the ten nominees for the Man Booker International Prize 2015, before this prize joined forces with the IFFP (International Foreign Fiction Prize). The newly created prize will retain the name Man Booker International Prize, but will follow the format of the IFFP, which was to nominate a book published in the year of the prize, not an author’s oeuvre of work.

Finalists

I have been reading the work of Maryse Condé, one of the ten nominees and I chose Marlene Van Niekerk’s Agaat after reading Rough Ghosts excellent and enticing review, linked below.

Agaat is the name of the adopted daughter/maidservant, taken into Milla’s home at 4-years-old, in a state of neglect, her arm disabled, rescued from an abusive, dysfunctional existence that might fill the vacuum inside a barren woman allowing her to create a useful child/companion, trained in all aspects of family and farming life.

Milla is the only child of a farming family and set to inherit and work her own farm, she is poised to marry Jak as the book opens. The novel explores the growing tension in their relationship through Milla’s diaries and the effect of Milla bringing Agaat into their (at the time) childless marriage. Twelve years into that bereft marriage she gives birth to a son.

AgaatThe chapters alternate between life as it was on the farm and the present, when Agaat, now a mature woman is caring for dying 67-year-old Milla, as her body shuts down, paralysed, infirm, communicating only through her eyes with this character she “tamed” whom she is now dependent on for everything.

Agaat is set on a the farm Milla inherited from her mother in South Africa, from the early years of apartheid until its dying days, just as Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress come into power. Milla takes over the farm when she marries Jak, the couple seem well-suited on the surface, though cracks and resentments appear early in the marriage, deepening to suggest otherwise.

Agaat is witness to, victim of and in many ways, moulded by this relationship, the family and the farm itself. She will learn everything from Milla, all that is required to run the home, the farm ; she will  help raise the son and establish a unique bond with him, passing to him her own knowledge, a consciousness more rooted in the land and its culture than any colonising people are ever capable of embracing. Rarely rebellious, it is in small but important ways that Agaat subverts the intentions of her masters, she who will ultimately inherit all.

The novel is narrated from Milla’s shifting point of view, the present tense, first person (I) view, a stream of consciousness narrative, in the latter weeks of her life when she lies bedridden, almost paralysed, in advanced stage motor neurone disease; the past tense, second person (you) view as she remembers episodes from the past, no doubt prompted by Agaat’s reading to her from the bundle of diaries she has kept over the years, both the original entries and annotations written in at a later time. The novel is bookended by a prologue and epilogue that give voice to the estranged son, something of a mystery and strangely absent from much of the narrative.

Agaat has become Milla’s specialist nurse and caregiver, tending to her needs with a detached, precision-like efficiency, communicating through the eyes, blinking an intuitive, telepathic like conversation, the result of a lifelong, if at times acerbic intimacy, command and control. The roles are now reversed, the landscape has changed and we are uncertain whether these actions are driven by love, hate, a sense of duty, a learned, stalwart independence, revenge or the imagined interpretations of a dying, guilt-ridden patroness.

French Version Cover

French Version Cover

We never enter into Agaat’s perspective, we view her through her mistress’s interpretation and the more we come to know about their relationship, the less sure we are of Agaat’s motives and feelings, unsettled by all that has come before, as we become aware that Milla’s present day view has to a certain extent rewritten the past into a more easily digested form.

There is something that Milla wants from Agaat and it is this minor battle of wills that provides a dramatic thread throughout Milla’s dying days. Agaat avoids fulfilling the request, bringing her mistress everything but the things she wants, a set of maps of the farm, like her body, the thing she is losing control of and the maps represent her last effort at retaining some form of control.

For a long time after finishing Agaat, I was not able to adequately express what I thought of it, I found it very disturbing. It is a story that stays with the reader a long time and reviewing it required a lengthy incubation period.

I read reviews in the New York Times and Rumpus (see links below) where critics referred to it as an allegory, convinced that these characters represented an abstract idea, that of apartheid, that it was there to teach or explain some kind of moral lesson. Sarah Pett, in her academic article refers to it as an ‘unruly text’, something that upends and disturbs the reader and here I find more resonance, along with these words proffered by the author herself, suggesting that these characters and this story should invite questions:

“…novels are texts of structured ambiguity that enable many readings. My reading of the text is no more valid than yours at this or any other point.  What I am mainly interested in as an author is to complicate matters…in such a densely patterned way that the text will not stop eliciting questions and that it will refuse to provide any definite answers to questions such as the ones you (and I) might ask.” Marlene Van Niekerk

In my reading of the story, the focus isn’t as much an indictment of apartheid, as a portrayal of that aspect of humanity, in which people attempt to enslave, train and/or control the other for a selfish purpose, as with slavery, as we know of the past and now of the present, often disguised as something else, it can be what an employer asks of an employee, a parent of a child, a human trafficker of its victims, a husband of a wife and it can occur in the reverse, the victim becomes the oppressor.

UK Cover Version of Agaat

UK Cover Version of Agaat

What is portrayed between Milla and Agaat seems to me something other than South Africa’s political policy of the 1940-1980’s, for that would be to limit it, it is born of it for sure, it shows what we are all capable of, depending on what we are born into, what we are influenced by and how we respond to those things. It is about how we think things through, with whom we share, discuss and listen, igniting and strengthening those neural parts of the brain whose inflammation will solidify that thinking, strengthening the belief and justification in our resultant behaviours.

I disliked being witness to it, to the playing along with the way things were for Milla on the farm, fulfilling her familial and societal expectations, flaunting them by taking in Agaat and exploiting her, with ignorant, self-righteous justification. However I couldn’t help wondering if Agaat was equally capable of the same. Disturbing and difficult to write about.

The allegory, if it is so, lacks any moral message, true the victim may eventually inherit the earth, however she too seems as likely to become the oppressor, for it is not the colour of one’s skin that dictates moral or good, all are capable of the same, we are weights on the end of the pendulum and depending on which way it is currently swinging, and where we are positioned, we could all too easily become either victim or oppressor.

Do read Rough Ghosts’ review, his will convince you to read it.

Further Reading:

Rough GhostsAnd Her Name Was Good

Liesl Schillinger, New York Times: Truth and Reconciliation

Luke Gerwe, Rumpus: Agaat

Sarah Pett, University of YorkThe via dolorosa in the Southern hemisphere: Reading illness and dying in Marlene van Nieker’s Agaat (2006)

Purge by Sofi Oksanen tr. Lola Rogers

PurgePurge by Sofi Oksanen is set in a rural village in the region of Läänemaa, west Estonia. The book is translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers.

It is a novel of two histories, one in the late 1930’s and 1940’s when Aliide and her sister Ingel were adolescents, spanning the changes in their lives after Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union and renamed Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR) and the other in the early 1990’s when a Russian-Estonian girl Zara, turns up unannounced seeking refuge.

At the time of the political occupation in 1944, those who failed to do their ‘political duty’ of voting Estonia into the USSR were condemned to death and mass deportations occurred (half perished, the rest unable to return until the 1960’s).

The novel of five parts opens with a letter written by Hans Pekk, son of Eerik, an Estonian peasant entitled Free Estonia! Each of the five parts begins with one of his letters, which date from June 1949 until September 1951 and then the chapters alternate between 1992 (post-independence), when the dishevelled young woman Zara arrives at Aliide’s home and the past, revealing Aliide’s youth and the years she lived through the Soviet occupation, from 1944 until 1951.

Zara’s story flips back occasionally to 1991 in Vladivostok, Russian Federation and to Berlin the same year, before her arrival at Aliide’s home. Zara is escaping brutal captors, men involved in sex slavery, human trafficking, for whom violence is an acceptable form of discipline and retribution and sex a currency of payment.

Aliide too has her secrets, having harboured a yearning for one man for many years, an obsessive, unrequited love that lead her to make decisions and live a life of repression and lies, to trust no one and operate continuously behind a mask to protect herself and the one she loved.

As the novel progresses and switches between era’s, the stories of the two women are revealed, we move closer to learning what happened to Aliide’s sister Ingel and the letter writer, Hans Pekk.

It is a compelling read whose slow revelations fasten the pace of reading, countered by the need to pay attention to the dates, as Oksanen flips back and forth in time.
Against a volatile and dangerous political backdrop, the idealism, obsessive love and risk taking characteristic of youth is played out and repeated across the generations, leaving one to wonder if anything ever really changes with time. In particular, the burden, degradation and abuse of women during war and conflict and the strategies pursued by them for survival.

‘Aliide went toward the road and tried to find the man that the voice had come from, and she found him. He was marching like a leader toward the dairy, and three or four men were following him, and Aliide saw how the tails of his coat thrust out like they were going to take off into the wind and how the others turned toward him when they spoke, but he didn’t turn to them when he answered, , he just looked straight ahead, his brow raised, looking toward the future. And then Aliide knew he was the man to rescue her, to safeguard her life.’

estonia_mapWanting to visualise where the region of Läänemaa in Estonia was, I found it was connected to a somewhat ironic slogan, “Your safe nesting place,” a reference to the areas wetlands and meadows, providing a protective habitat to its wildlife.

It is a thought-provoking metaphor in relation to the novel, where civilians required a safe place to be protected from a different kind of predator. Is that nature? To require protection from the human predator? Is there safe refuge for those persecuted by the more brutal aspects of human power seeking? If we found ourselves living in such circumstances, how would we react?

Sofi Oksanen speaking about the title:

“When I was a child,” says Oksanen, “no one talked about deportations. People ‘went to Siberia’. Certain things were so dangerous to mention that people used a lot of expressions to circumvent the actual issues.”

“When I started the play and was thinking about the title, I was thinking about the traumatic reaction people can have after they’ve experienced violence or been raped,” she says. “People always try to clean themselves. So that was the first meaning – cleansing.”

Purge was a bestseller in Finland, winning numerous literary prizes and has been translated into 38 languages. The Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen, was born in Finland and spent her summers in Estonia, visiting her grandmother on a kolkhoz, a Soviet collective farm, giving her an insight into a life not many outside it had access to. The story appeared as a play before the author wrote the novel.

Man Booker Prize Winner 2015

On Tuesday 13 October the Man Booker Prize for 2015 was announced.

This years winner was 44-year-old Marlon James from Jamaica (now living in Minneapolis, USA). He is the first writer from Jamaica to win the prize in its 47 year history.

His book A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fictional history, an imagined biography of the singer Bob Marley, and the events surrounding an attempted assassination in 1976. Crediting Charles Dickens as one of his former influences, here in his 686 page epic, James pulls together a band of characters:

from witnesses and FBI and CIA agents to killers, ghosts, beauty queens and Keith Richards’ drug dealer – to create a rich, polyphonic study of violence, politics and the musical legacy of Kingston of the 1970s

Michael Wood, Chair of the judges, commented:

‘This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami.

‘It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about. It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.’

It sounds like a riveting pageturner, with its cast of over 75 characters and voices. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve requested my local library buy it. Here is what a few reviewers have had to say:

Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times – Booker winner Marlon James tops Tarantino for body count

Reading Marlon’s prose is akin to injecting liquid fire into your brain.

Kei Miller, The Guardian – bloody conflicts in 70s Jamaica

tendency to inhabit the dark and gory places, and to shine a light on them

Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times – Jamaica via a Sea of Voices

raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting

Have you read it yet? Or planning to?

 

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García

Dreaming in CubanSet against the background of the Cuban Revolution, Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban is a story that spans three generations of women in the del Pino/Almeida family, highlighting the things that tie them together and those which push them apart.

The book opens with a vision of a man walking across water, a vision seen through a pair of binoculars, by Celia, the matriarchal grandmother. The man she sees is her ailing husband, Jorge del Pino who left for the United States four years earlier to seek medical attention. Observing the apparition, she understands that he has passed on.

Her daughter Lourdes from whom she is estranged and her granddaughter Pilar, with whom she communicates through a kind of telepathic relationship, live in America. Celia is pro the Castro regime while Lourdes abhors it. On opposite sides of the revolutionary fence, neither will budge in their views or actions, despite the consequent rupture in their relationship and the knock on effect it has for others in the family, forced to take sides.

Pilar understands her grandmother and hates that the mother and daughter’s political beliefs prevent her from being closer to either of them. She rebels herself without knowing against what exactly, manifesting her discomfort with the world through impassioned artworks that initially disturb her mother and inspire harsh criticism, but which will eventually bring them closer together.

The past is also invoked through a series of letters written by Celia to Gustavo, the man she first loved, who it is revealed is the not the man she married. Though none of these letters were ever sent, they continue to be written over the years, a place where Celia shares her innermost thoughts, desires and regrets.

Her second daughter Felicia never leaves Cuba, marries, has children and at a certain point becomes somewhat deranged, remarrying twice in quick succession, attracting tragedy from the moment of her second marriage. She becomes deluded,  seeks refuge in music and the Afro-Cuban cult of Santeria, becomes a priestess and loses herself completely.

Cristine Garcia

Author, Cristina García

Similarly to Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, Cristina García explores themes of separation and identity, exile, the survival strategies of women and mother’s and the long threads of cultural connection that continue to exist despite the miles that come to separate those who embrace them.

In literature, it tends to be referred to as magical realism, that occasional departure from the firm reality we are sure of, however it seems almost too easy to dismiss it as a literary device and ignore the connections between and within certain cultural traditions, where this ethereal communication between the living and the dead, those present and those who are not, exists alongside the more mundane communication we all indulge in.

I have noticed this tendency occurring in my recent reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, Maryse Condé’s Victoire Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory and Cristina García’s work, writers from Antigua, Guadeloupe, Haiti and Cuba respectively and find it adds something essential and attractive to the narrative.

A brilliant addition to a growing collection of literature from this region, in a style I adore. A 5 star read for me. Highly recommended.