Marlene van Niekerk is one of the most prominent Afrikaans-language writers, the author of (among other books) two big and ambitious novels: Triomf and Agaat. Toni Morrison’s enthusiasm for Agaat appeared to be the reason for this event, in which the Nobel Prize winner did her best to keep the spotlight on her South African colleague.
Morrison wasn’t in a reading mood when she picked up Agaat, she said. She was recovering from hip surgery, and was not eager to devote herself to a 500-page novel (cut from 800 pages, as Van Niekerk mentioned later). Yet she devoured it in two days.
“It is absolutely the most extraordinary book I have read in a long, long time,” she told the audience. “You must read it.”
Consider this recommendation advisedly. Marlene van Niekerk is a writer that I, at least, find much easier to admire than to enjoy. Triomf tells the story of what the author freely describes as a white-trash family of Afrikaners, living in a settlement built over the bulldozed remains of what was once a vibrant multiracial community. In the opening pages, the mother’s racist and controlling brother successfully prevents her from indulging one of her few pleasures: a treat from an ice cream truck. Before long, you discover that the family is incestuous to an extent hard to equal in the most exploitative novels of Appalachia or the Deep South.
Triomf has a rough humor that makes it easier to take, but in Agaat all humor seems to have been drained away. Milla, an Afrikaner woman paralyzed by the final stages of ALS, is being cared for by her mixed-race servant Agaat, who has been with the family for forty years. Milla cannot speak, so much of the book consists of her memories of a troubled marriage and of life on the farm.
Critics generally agree that the book is, at least in part, an allegory of race relations in South Africa. Publishers Weekly, which gave it a starred review, says that it “trudges through the depths of a South African farmwife’s soul,” revealing “the horrible mistakes that have made her life a waste.”
Though Van Niekerk unquestionably writes very well, I was unable to make it past the first two chapters of either of these books. Still, I found her dialogue with Morrison on the nature of the Afrikaans language quite interesting. Afrikaans grew into a fully developed language in “very doubtful circumstances,” she said, but its literature has become “strangely and surprisingly vibrant.” Compared to Dutch, in which it is rooted, Afrikaans is grammatically simplified in a way that modern-day Dutch consider cute.
Yet despite any cuteness, Afrikaans has gathered sinister associations. Van Niekerk quoted the infamous comment of Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger on the death of Steve Biko: Dit laat my koud, or “It leaves me cold.” But as Morrison noted, “You can’t penalize language,” and Van Niekerk agreed.