Marlene van Niekerk - a tale of transmission, disappearance, and utterance, of writing as it hovers at the edge of language, trafficking with the ephemeral and the unreliable; challenging the primacy of the written text through a compelling reflection on flow and interference, rhythms and non-origin. A tale of listening as the rebeginning of writing







Marlene van Niekerk, The Swan Whisperer: An Inaugural Lecture, Trans. by Marius Swart and the authorSylph Editions, 2015.

The Swan Whisperer by Marlene van Niekerk is the literary equivalent of an impossible space – that is, this 40-page sewn paperback, lush with illustrations by fellow South African, famed artist William Kentridge, contains a tale much larger than its size would suggest. It begins modestly. Subtitled An Inaugural Lecture, van Niekerk opens with a series of questions for her imagined audience:
“What does one teach when one is a teacher of Creative Writing? The true? The good? The beautiful? Should one teach criticism, fantasy, or faith? What is the use of literature? What is its place on the greater canvas of human endeavours? And perhaps I should also ask: Can a story offer consolation?”
Voluminous texts have been penned to examine questions such as these, and yet within the 18 pages that lie ahead once the illustrations have been accounted for, is our esteemed professor at the lectern is planning to explore them all? No, she is going to tell a story, offer a fable within a fable, share an experience that she claims rendered these questions irrelevant for her.
What plays out in this inventive and thoughtful allegorical tale is an exploration of the relationship between language and meaning, meaning and truth, truth and the stories we tell which, in turn, leads back to language. Van Niekerk casts herself in the role of the skeptic. At the outset she is busy with the final revisions on a novel that is almost complete. Around her, the rest of her life and responsibilities have been suspended while she survives on frozen dinners and ignores her untended house and garden. The last thing she is prepared to welcome at this moment is a 67-page letter from a former student who, she discovers, is writing from a hospital bed in Amsterdam. She had recommended him for a student fellowship in the city with the thought that the change of place might finally help this pale, anxious young man finish off his MA and move on. But she is certain without reading beyond the first few paragraphs that there is little hope for him and most certainly nothing in his massive missive for her.
And so it goes. After reading a little further, she tucks his letter into a drawer and forgets about it until an unusual package arrives: a dummy of her new novel in which he has written notes and dates, along with 16 cassette tapes. Gradually she will be drawn into the story he wants – no, needs – to share. Cynically she reads about how her student, Kasper Olwagon, believes he has discovered, quite magically almost, an unusual homeless man who seems to have an uncanny ability to summon swans to himself. He watches the man for a while and ultimately takes this vagrant home. He longs to know how this apparent ‘swan whisperer’ calls to the magnificent birds, but for all of his efforts, Kasper is unable to encourage or help him to speak.
2015-11-11 03.18.55In his long letter, Kasper anticipates his professor’s reaction, but he persists and over time, as she is drawn into the mystery and returns repeatedly to his letter for clues. She reads about his attempts to extract meaning from the murmurings he believes he heard, his desire to translate the language of swans. She hears in his efforts echoes of Afrikaans. Slowly she will begin to understand the meaning of the cryptic note that accompanied his parcel containing the book and tapes. The last words he wrote to her were: “Farewell to the worlds of will and representation!” As readers we are invited to follow the entwined journeys of student and teacher to that place where all of those questions posed at the beginning seem to be archaic, irrelevant. And once those rhetorical questions are left behind, one begins to appreciate the expanse of the impossible space contained in this small book.
2015-11-11 03.21.17The Swan Whisperer is the latest addition to the “Cahier Series”, a joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. Eminent writers and translators are invited to offer their reflections on writing, on translating, and on the intersection between the two activities. Each volume is accompanied by illustrations. Here, the striking black and white drawings by William Kentridge act almost as a visual soundtrack. His work has a tendency to explode off the page. The images complement the story by exploring the relationship between artists, animals and language. The text is translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart and the author.
2015-11-11 03.13.44
I have to add that this particular volume held a special appeal for me. This spring I read, for the first time, Marlene van Niekerk’s magnificent novel Agaat. Not only is this a complex, deeply moving story; but the way that language is evoked and brought into play presented a challenge well met by the translator, Michiel Heyns. Not long after this encounter I made my first visit to South Africa and I had the singular pleasure of experiencing William Kentridge’s installation “The Refusal of Time” at the National Gallery in Cape Town. It was, I felt, like a command performance as no one else even ventured into the room beyond a quick glance at the door. Their loss and one of my fondest memories of my stay in the city.
And now I have both artists together in this enchanting and thought provoking book. - roughghosts.wordpress.com/


“Honorable rector,” begins Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted Marlene van Niekerk’s “lecture”, The Swan Whisperer, “what does one teach when one is a teacher of creative writing?”
Instead of analysis, in this slim pamphlet she slips the bounds of the academic format to offer her audience a story: “Perhaps some clarity could be reached by exposing the entire episode to a critical audience such as yourselves.” This entails the South African author becoming a character in her own narrative.
“No desire without technique, and no meaning without rhetoric,” grumbles the irritable “van-Niekerk-as-narrator,” who is a writing tutor at “an institute of higher learning where there is no longer any place for astonishment, fear, or fascination”.
Her teaching approach consists of aphoristic injunctions to shorten, to “stick to the knitting”, to show not tell and, above all, to “write what readers want”.
That is until she receives a series of mysterious letters from an intriguing but troubled ex-student, Kaspar Olwagen, whom she remembers contrary to her “laws”, felt for his writing pen in his breast pocket “as though he first wanted to touch his heart”. As well as letters, Olwagen sends cassettes, another indicator of his analog obsolescence.
The Swan Whisperer offers the delight of not one, but two unreliable narrators. The “van Niekerk” of the book exists on “frozen meals from Nice and Easy,” which she eats among a debris of “speeding tickets and bills”.
She constantly loses Olwagen’s letters, puts them aside in irritation or absent-mindedness.
“I never replied,” the writing teacher says. “This is the first time I have ever spoken of my neglect.”
Kaspar, says “van Niekerk”, should have been a philosopher, not a writer. He insists on “ideas”. But what she finds most irritating is that, given her teaching, and even the right environment (a luxurious grant to visit “a writer’s paradise” in Amsterdam), her student cannot seem to be able to write.
Of course communicating this to his teacher by letter, he does write and not in everyday language. We couldn’t take Kaspar’s style on its own. The beauty (and there is beauty!) in his high-flown flourishes and romantic concepts must be framed by “van Niekerk’s” down-to-earth scorn or it would be indigestible.
Nevertheless it is in the gap produced between the two writing styles that The Swan Whisperer is able to ask us how we enjoy reading and why.
“Writing and living coincide completely in this letter,” writes Kaspar, who tells how though “overbred, neurotic, afraid of germs, [he] offers accommodation to a grimy maladjusted stranger,” the “Swan Whisperer,” a man who appears to be homeless and whose conversation makes no apparent sense. His strange guest produces a third style of communication: he speaks in the tongues of angels.
But The Swan Whisperer deals not only with literature as a philosophical investigation of language. It is also a deeply political book. “Fiction can no longer console us,” protests Kaspar. “The terror of our fatherland robs the narrative imagination of desire and determination ... we have to become brutal collectors of facts.”
Van Niekerk is a South African writer in Afrikaans and Dutch as well as English and is acutely aware of the difficulties of depicting a post-apartheid South Africa in any of these languages.
Her query, “What does one teach when one is a teacher of creative writing?” prompts the consequent question: what can, and should, a writer write?
The book is not an answer to the question of the mystery of writing, but a delineation of the mystery itself – a depiction of the space of “translation” in which the reader, with greater, or lesser difficulty, interprets what is written – and that (as it must be for the “van Niekerk” of the story) is achievement enough.
“I wrote in the margin: ‘Delete the ideas!’,” says “van Niekerk”. “[Kaspar] simply could not achieve the narrative resolution of meaning and minutiae.”
The illustrations in this gorgeous Cahier edition make it clear that The Swan Whisperer is a book about its own hors-texte, but this is one book whose pages I cannot bring myself to annotate. And, though they touch me, I will also leave untouched those pages illustrated by artist William Kentridge, which explode in a violence of ink. - Joanna Walsh


For some time now I’ve been reading The Swan Whisperer over and over as if under a spell, driven by the idea that what links the swan in the title and the words in the text is sound. The word “swan” comes from the Indo-European root “swen-”: “to sound.” And according to some versions of the legend, Orpheus was transformed into a swan after his death.
Words into sound, through a whisper. I try to stitch these elements together, then realize that probably the verb to use shouldn’t be stitch but say, or speak.
This is a tale of transmission, disappearance, and utterance, of writing as it hovers at the edge of language, trafficking with the ephemeral and the unreliable; challenging the primacy of the written text through a compelling reflection on flow and interference, rhythms and non-origin. A tale of listening as the rebeginning of writing; of people missing but resounding through words whose meaning is lost (or maybe it was never there completely): it has to be made anew every time. A story of speech emerged from and given back to birds, wind and water, a story of speech into landscape. A tale of writing as divining and impure continuity.
***
The Germanic word for magic formula is galdr, derived from the verb galan, ‘to sing,’ a term applied especially to bird calls.-Mircea Eliade, Shamanism
Marlene van Niekerk likes to talks with owls. “The fellowship of breath,” the South African writer calls those birds in a short interview with The Guardian, on the occasion of her nomination for the International Man Booker Prize in 2015. The reference to breath leads me to recall the old meaning of the word “psyche” as air, an element connecting inner states with the sensuous world; and the ancient notion of birds as spirit visitors carrying the whispers and voices of the lost and missing ones, or of birds as originators of human language. In the same interview Van Niekerk mentions Wordsworth’s poem There Was a Boy, about a boy who talks with owls and then is lost in “a pause / Of silence such as baffled his best skill.” Tellingly she refers to Seamus Heaney’s reading of the poem in Finders Keepers. “Skill is no use anymore [to the boy/poet],” Heaney writes, “but in the baulked silence there occurs something more wonderful than owl-calls. As he stands open like an eye or an ear, he becomes imprinted with all the melodies and hieroglyphs of the world; the workings of the active universe […] are echoed far inside him.” The Swan Whisperer is also a story of voice dissolved into the landscape, transformed into a different substance and texture, different but present. It stretches the understanding of language into what is concealed or not yet heard, and farther out into the wild nature of landscape, until language becomes “the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests,” to borrow Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s words from The Visible and the Invisible.
Owls, writing, and birdsong. For the Koyukon people of Alaska the owl is the supreme prophet of birds: it “tells you things.” According to Vedic mythology, as I learn from Roberto Calasso in Literature and the Gods, “the meters […] turned themselves into birds with bodies made of syllables.” For the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, as ethnomusicologist Steven Feld reports extensively in Sound and Sentiment, “‘bird sound words’” have “‘insides’” and “‘underneaths’”; they “alter the framing of interactions, moving them onto a plane where underlying feelings, emotions and thoughts associated with loss come to the listener’s mind.” Turned over, words show more than one side to themselves. A bird appears at a key point in Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, harbinger of transformation through the disruption of rational language: “Belzi Ra Ha-ha Hecate Come! / Descend upon us to the sound of my drum / Ikala Iktum my bird is a mole / Up goes the Equator and down the North Pole.” And in another story of unhinged language, Gert Jonke’s Awakening to the Great Sleep War, birds are seen as winged alphabet letters trying to arrange themselves “even when there’s not much to say.” Are syllables, alphabets, and hearing trumpets enough, to enable a subject to listen, record, write beyond the acquired channels of linguistic representation and transmission devices? The characters in this tale suggest otherwise.
The Swan Whisperer begins as a public address and ends with an incantation.
It begins as a formal lecture and ends, through various reports and erasures of utterance, on the edge of form.
Its pages hold words about getting lost and about to get lost.
Three characters in the story: the narrator, a creative writing professor called Van Niekerk, like the author (who places herself from the outset in a complex mise-en-abyme where person becomes character and back: the embodiment of a necessary Janus-like gaze spanning fact and fiction); a creative writing student the professor calls Kasper Olwagen (but is this his real name? We never find out) who is stuck in a writer’s block, disappears, and later contacts his teacher through various devices; and an elusive Swan Whisperer, encountered by Kasper on the canals of Amsterdam, who can communicate with birds.
The teacher is reluctant to read, the student cannot write, the Swan Whisperer does not speak—or prefers not to. They all appear to be undergoing different stages of a metamorphosis.
Kasper’s nickname is Xenos, outsider, stranger: to himself, and to writing. His story is reported through his teacher, who receives it in seemingly disconnected fragments: a 67-page letter, a book entitled The Logbook of a Swan Whisperer, sixteen 60-minute cassettes, sand. None of them hold any truth but complicate the jolted unfolding of the narrative: records, like the narrators in these pages, are unreliable, voicing erosion through time. The loci from which this story is written are not sites of stability, either. Kasper’s letter is sent from a hospital intensive care unit, Professor Van Niekerk writes from a shaken point of hesitancy. Out of such a condition of instability, of intensive care, the broken subjects in this tale of unwriting appear vulnerable: porous channels for quivering polyphonies, where every voice intimates that they’re using the tongue of another in an ongoing transmission whose origin is lost.
Broadcasting devices are also present—albeit fractured, partially erased—in the drawings by fellow South African William Kentridge interspersed in the pages of the Cahier. They point at the unpolished nature of transmission, and at the uncomfortable, damaged, violated site of writing. Erasure, in Kentridge’s abrupt brushstrokes, as much as in Kasper’s logbook entries, takes the form of black ink washes set against delicate calligraphy, or: the force of life and history as it interrupts and complicates polished forms of writing and reporting. What is testimony, what is transmitted and inevitably interfered with (because it is alive even when unspoken, silenced)?
Much in this story is unresolved, unexplained, untold. The actual documents are rarely disclosed and most of the narrative is half-guessed at or thwarted—and yet present on its own complicated terms.
Understanding does not come exclusively from texts as permanent marks: it is generated through listening on the periphery of canonical meaning, through speech that is sensuous, tactile like the ink, marks, and erasures of Kentridge’s drawings, or like the sand that the professor receives from her student by post. Speech prompts errors and astonishment, Kasper intimates while he morphs into a listening-speaking-writing enlandscaped entity beyond self. It must also voice absence, violence, and omission through dissonance. In this sense The Swan Whisperer is the necessary counterpart to Agaat/The Way of the Women, van Niekerk’s 2006 novel of inner polyphonies. While Agaat’s absorbing fullness, across more than 500 pages, overcomes the barriers of the narrator’s muteness with the noises of inner speech, The Swan Whisperer is a supreme synthesis of taciturn hints, its 37 pages alluding to records and reports where it’s never entirely certain who or what can be trusted, other than the materiality of words which demand to be heard and spoken. Agaat is a torrential unfolding of language in a multitude of selves and voices; The Swan Whisperer’s skeletal structure is that of a story within a story within a story told, mistold, spelled on the vapor on a windowpane only to disappear shortly after. Agaat is narrated by somebody who has lost her voice, is mute. The Swan Whisperer suggests we must make ourselves mute in our voices and adopt the voices of others, to enable a resounding flux of thinking-feeling to enter into writing. It does so by density rather than scale, disclosing connections in every word.
I can’t let go of The Swan Whisperer’s viscous materiality, its thick and fiery lava stream of correspondences drifting through my attention. It has the effect of a chant grasped beyond reasoning, an alchemic transformation that conveys dreamlike visions through a terse, poised language, in a disarming contrast of blurred states of mind and sharp rhetorical edges. At one point the professor encounters the phrase “tohoe wa bohoe” in Kasper’s logbook: first she dismisses it as nonsense, later she finds out that in Hebrew it means “formless void.” The appearance of Hebrew in Kasper’s undecipherable transcriptions seems to be a nod to the Enochian traditions of language divinely received, and to stories of angelic conversations. I begin to suspect every word is here for a reason, in a dizzying vertigo of connections and references that I’ve only begun to fathom, and that perhaps also includes all the numbers and the names precisely dotted all over these pages. The game of join-the-dots nevertheless leads to nothing: this story is not the clear outcome of a scheme or a hidden formula. The more I read it the more I sense, through its density and its frictions, that all its parts will never quite hinge, so close they are to the unruly tensions that exceed language and then claim to return to it in the most tangled arrangements. Through the filter of Kasper’s words and the Swan Whisperer’s spells the professor allows herself boldly and unapologetically to speak of magic and angels, as her character stages intermittent detachment and deep involvement with such entities, never apparently endorsed but certainly long frequented and deeply pondered. Perhaps this is what Kasper meant when he wrote that his story might be used for his teacher’s “dark designs.”
The text is punctuated with confrontations on writing, as the professor reports her discussions with Kasper, the conflicts between the roles of “an archivist” and “an aesthete,” between fact and fiction, the true and the beautiful. The breakthrough occurs when the tale ceases to preempt and critique itself, when its characters—and their readers—stop forcing themselves to understand. Kasper wants the Swan Whisperer to speak, as much as he wants himself to write, so he tries all the tricks, he tries to extract words by exposing him to terror, to the sublime, to romantic music. He even checks his mouth, and its ridges remind him of a harp—another Orphic symbol. He’s drawn to the Swan Whisperer’s ability to converse, although in another language: a skill he’s lost, and he can only regain, like Wordsworth’s boy, through learning to listen and to accept that taking part in a transmission means not always having control over it. He will begin to write when the recurring question, where does writing come from? is transformed into what and whom does writing come through?; when he is able to pass his experience onward, to someone else’s voice, no longer concerned with the choice between truth or fiction, but absorbed by the dissonance of their contrast. Kasper begins to write when he begins to care and to listen; when writing is no longer meant to be still, but is shaken by shivers of spoken words, sounds, relations, and rhythms. When are they heard, who or what whispers them to us, through us? Earlier in his story he had written, on a damp windowpane: “Perhaps my whisper was born before my lips”—a line from Osip Mandelstam, who once said that a poet is a stealer of air. Kasper breathes and writes through someone else’s words, maintaining that “we are here to be called to, to be called upon, to be summoned into existence.” This tale is not a beginning but a rebeginning, to borrow an expression coined by Laura Riding, who postulates that language is a gift to be given one another, in which and through which we disappear as singulars—like in Kasper’s final vision before vanishing, “a procession […] all of us connected at the wrist by an endless black ribbon.”
It ends with an incantation: Kasper’s swan song, or the mark of his metamorphosis into swan-as-sound that occurs through breath, in and out of language. In another chain of transformations Professor Van Niekerk becomes Kasper, Kasper becomes Xenos, writing as utterance is only possible for them as strangers in a language, when they cannot tread safely and must rely on sense and sound for tentative acts of connection, to reinstate their strangeness that will not allow itself to be erased. Like a magic spell, Kasper’s final words dictated through him by the Swan Whisperer and translated through the professor’s voice alter the common organization of sense, yet can neither be dismissed as nonsensical, marginal, nor pointless. Nor are they meant to lead to a higher understanding: they are very much of this world, because this world needs the awkward and the unpolished, the marginal and the unruly.
“I am still listening. I shall never stop listening. I could not discern the words of his poems, if that’s even what they were.” Such is Van Niekerk’s pronouncement as she listens to Kasper’s tapes in the final part of her account. In a moment of revelation that does not reveal anything but the endless questioning of speech and language, she realizes that “meaning is incidental. What matters are the material words.” And the transmissions that ensue. There is no origin, only an endless reworking, a fabulatory interweaving across the boundaries of language and through languages in the plural. Statements such as “I am the real dummy … and god only knows who is writing in me” testify to the moment when translation becomes transience. She reads Kasper’s words out loud, “in the hope that the water and the plumes will keep whispering them, perhaps whisper them through to him.” The landscape of language is both sensuous and psychological: Kasper’s poems in the tapes were “recorded near to running water or waving grass, […] to provide his voice with a kind of pedal point: not a bold bass pedal as in Bach, but rustling, murmuring, as though time were an instrument played by the transparent fingers of grass and water.” As I read these words I was reminded of the German term Stimmung, a tonality of being that conjoins subject and landscape; of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ inscape; of the Sybil’s leaves bearing their message in a flicker whose meaning exceeds trace or tangibility; of German sound artist Rolf Julius, who “wrote” a concert for a frozen lake, allowing his pared-down poetry and the surrounding landscape to become as much a part of the composition as the sounds; of Adriana Cavarero’s notion of chora, transmitted to her by Plato via Kristeva and expressed in her book For More than One Voice as the extra-linguistic, extra-conceptual quality of voice. I was reminded of Aristotle’s statement, “one must not learn, but suffer an emotion and be in a certain state.” I went back to David Toop’s Haunted Weather and its ruminations around secret sounds and states of becoming; to Emily Dickinson’s “being but an ear” marking the beat of her loss of sense and reason. I dwelled on the implications of my own choice, as a writer, to be a stranger in a second language—its discomforts, its thrills, the meddling with residues from another culture to form other sounds. Finally I recalled sentences by Clarice Lispector’s G.H. urging herself, from the edge of language and silence, to become “far-off landscape”: “Ah, but to reach muteness, what a great effort of voice.”
In only a handful of pages, The Swan Whisperer says a lot more about the ineffable yet material quality of listening, and its complex, necessary relation with cultural residues and language, than do most lengthy tomes. That a thirty-odd page text can disclose all this is extraordinary. That I haven’t yet quite worked out what exactly happens in the end will make for repeated reads that are certain to thicken, excite, and complicate my understanding. I shall say it again: The Swan Whisperer is not a text about writing, but a channel of transmission. It sounds a subtle onomatopoeia of the deep, of murmurs and silences, of the doing and undoing of meaning. Then writing re-begins.
Kasper’s initial struggle to “produce something tangible” is dissolved in the shimmer of his swan song. Read those words: if you try to decipher them you will no longer hear them or see them. Speak them out loud: maybe you will hear Kasper’s voice, Van Niekerk’s, and the Swan Whisperer’s. Maybe you’ll vanish in them too. - Daniela Cascella


The first of today’s choices is Marlene Van Niekerk’s The Swan Whisperer (translated by the author and Marius Swart), a short story of sorts in the form of a lecture.  In her talk, Professor Van Niekerk, whether a real version or a fictional equivalent, tells her audience about a former student of hers, a man she decides to call ‘Kasper Olwagen’.  After arranging for the hapless Kasper to go on a writing retreat in Amsterdam, the professor receives a lengthy letter in which he talks about his experiences in the Dutch capital – one which Van Niekerk promptly shoves in a drawer and forgets.
Eventually, however, she is drawn to returning to Kasper’s story despite herself, and it’s certainly worth reading.  After a description of his new home, he turns to a new topic entirely, a homeless man he constantly sees around the Amsterdam canals.  What draws the young writer’s attention is not so much the man himself as how he spends his days:
He straightened up, still murmuring, hands in the air like a conductor before the orchestra strikes up.  Then he gave the first beat.  And there, from under the bridge, swam two swans towards him, majestically, parading their necks, as if they belonged to him.
p.18 (Sylph Editions, 2015)
Back in South Africa, his teacher reads on incredulously – a homeless man who can control swans?  It’s a lot better than Kasper’s previous efforts, at least…
The Swan Whisperer is an intriguing work, a text which swings between narrative and non-fiction, a little ambiguous in what it’s supposed to be.  The writer deliberately distances us from the narrative, both through her sceptical attitude towards Kasper’s letter and her frequent returns to the language of her talk, addressing herself to her audience and at the same time dragging the reader away from Amsterdam.  However, you sense that there’s a wider agenda here, with Van Niekerk (or her fictional alter-ego) gradually realising that there’s more to Kasper’s story than a cry for help from a homesick student.  In a sense , she’s using the story to explore her own attitudes towards fiction, and how it should develop in South Africa.
By the end of the tale, the shift from a cynical academic reading a letter in the comfort of her home to a writer pursuing a new form of text is complete.  Van Niekerk, having received cassettes of undecipherable murmurings from her former student (who has disappeared into the South African wilderness), now spends her time translating what she hears into a mix of Afrikaans and babble.  Is it all fiction?  Is it based on reality?  Does it really matter? - tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/the-swan-whisperer-by-marlene-van-niekerk-translators-blues-by-franco-nasi-review/

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Marlene van Niekerk, Agaat, Trans. by Michiel Heyns, Tin House Books, 2010.




Set in apartheid South Africa, Agaat portrays the unique relationship between Milla, a 67-year-old white woman, and her black maidservant turned caretaker, Agaat. Through flashbacks and diary entries, the reader learns about Milla's past. Life for white farmers in 1950s South Africa was full of promise — young and newly married, Milla raised a son and created her own farm out of a swathe of Cape mountainside. Forty years later her family has fallen apart, the country she knew is on the brink of huge change, and all she has left are memories and her proud, contrary, yet affectionate guardian. With haunting, lyrical prose, Marlene Van Niekerk creates a story of love and family loyalty. Winner of the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize in 2007, Agaat was translated as The Way of the Women by Michiel Heyns, who received the Sol Plaatje Award for his translation.


"I was immediately mesmerized...Its beauty matches its depth and her achievement is as brilliant as it is haunting." - Toni Morrison


Few books I've read carry the visceral impact of Marlene van Niekerk's Agaat; it is the South African writer's second novel and fifth book, and it is stunning. Set in the apartheid era of the 1950s into the '90s, on a dairy farm contentiously run by a desperately unhappy white couple, Milla and Jak de Wet, and their half-adopted, half-enslaved black maid, Agaat, it is about institutional racial violence, intimate domestic violence, human violence against the natural world, pride, folly, self-deception, and the innately mixed, sometimes debased nature of human love. It is especially about how this mixed nature is expressed through the deep and complex language of the body; I don't believe I've ever read a book that so powerfully translates this physical language into printed words.
Agaat is narrated almost entirely by Milla, a strong-minded, verbally sophisticated, emotionally bereft Afrikaans woman paralyzed in old age by a motor-neuron disease, unable to communicate except with her eyes, and only then to Agaat, with whom she long had an anguished and loving bond and who cares for her on an all too intimate level. Here, for example, is Agaat cleaning Milla's mouth:
Say "ah" for doctor, says Agaat. I close my eyes. What have I done wrong? The little mole-hand nuzzles out my tongue. . . . The screw has squashed it in my mouth. My tongue is being staked out for its turn at ablution. The sponge is rough. With vigorous strokes my tongue is scrubbed down... Three times the sponge is recharged before Agaat is satisfied. My tongue feels eradicated. - Mary Gaitskill


Once in a great while, you read a novel that transforms you so completely you are sure the change must be obvious to all who know you. Like a trauma survivor, you are astonished when life continues all around you, oblivious to what you have just been through, absorbed in its old trivialities. Given my obsessions—race and racial politics; the delicate balance of power between servants and even the most benevolent employers—it is hard to imagine a novel more guaranteed to affect me than Marlene van Niekerk’s masterpiece, Agaat (trans. Michiel Heyns, Tin House Books, 2010; published in the UK as The Way of The Women, Jonathan Ball, 2006). The novel opens during the last days of apartheid and tells the story of an Afrikaner woman and the black servant who has worked for her for most of both their lives. But Agaat is a stunning feat for reasons that have nothing to do with my own particular background: structural intricacy, stylistic range, the daring and devastating allegory that underlies the narrative without overwhelming it. It may be unfashionable and imprudent to make such declarations in a review, but Agaat is, without a doubt, one of the five finest novels I have ever read, and one I will return to repeatedly, knowing that I will find new marvels within its pages on each reading.
The allegorical aspect is unsurprisingly the first to grab the reader’s attention, and so audacious is it, that one can scarcely outline it without making it seem ridiculous. It seems unlikely that any serious novelist could pull this off, and yet van Niekerk does: Milla, the Afrikaner woman and the novel’s narrator, is paralyzed and dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, so that, as the apartheid era draws to its close around them, she must depend on her servant, Agaat, for all her needs. Agaat—whose right arm and hand are deformed, but who is adroit and capable despite this handicap—must wipe Milla’s backside, scratch her itches, massage spoonfuls of porridge down her throat, and guess her whims: her dying wish, for example, to look at the maps of her her farm, Grootmoedersdrift. Milla thinks:
I want to see the distances recorded and certified between the main road and the foot-hills, from the stables to the old orchard, I want to hook my eye to the little blue vein with the red bracket that marks the crossing, the bridge over the drift, the little arrow where the water of the drift wells up, the branchings of the river.
She wants, in short, to take stock one last time, to take ownership even briefly, even symbolically.
Richtersveld
But Agaat had put away the maps of Grootmoedersdrift, along with various other documents and decorations, when Milla became bedridden and the back room of the farmhouse had to be cleared out for her. And now Agaat can only play twenty questions in response to Milla’s desperate eye signals:
Shall I draw the curtain a bit? Do you want to listen to the morning service? A tape? Wine women and song? The pan for number one? The pan for number two? Too cold? Too hot? Sit up straighter? Lie down flatter? Eat a bit more porridge? Fruit pulp? There is cold melon? With a bit of salt? Water? Tea with honey and lemon?
Whether she cannot or will not guess what Milla really wants, we ourselves must wonder, adjusting our perceptions through the course of the novel as the mystery of Agaat unfolds before us. For of course Agaat is wiser, and crueler, and more powerful than we have guessed at first, and though she never speaks for herself in the novel—we hear her words and see her actions only through Milla—we cannot help but share Milla’s suspicion that Agaat revels in her complete control over Milla’s body. She is the perfect nurse, following the doctor’s orders to the letter, foisting the prescribed exercises upon Milla’s unresisting limbs, studying her urine with a magnifying glass, meticulously recording “the motions of my entrances and my exits.” Will she eventually bring the maps out for Milla? This is the question that drives the third of the novel that takes place in the 1990s, and it is yet another choice to which summary cannot do justice: it seems an unlikely source of momentum until you actually find yourself turning the pages with bated breath, wondering how long Agaat will hold out, in what other ways she will misunderstand (or pretend to misunderstand) Milla’s longing before she yields.
Riebeek Kasteel vista
The twenty chapters of Agaat are structured identically: each opens with Milla at Agaat’s mercy on her deathbed in the 1990s, then goes on to an extended flashback in the second person, then a dense stream-of-consciousness prose poem, and finally a entry or a series of entries from Milla’s diaries. But where this structure might have seemed arbitrary or contrived in the hands of a lesser writer, here it emerges organically from the novel’s context: the diary entries, for example, are there because Agaat is reading Milla’s diaries aloud to her to keep her entertained, and what an act of both devotion and defiance this is: against Milla’s wishes, Agaat has kept the diaries, and now, at the end of Milla’s life—when Milla can no longer speak for herself to question or to defend those earlier versions of herself—she has brought them out to share. What she herself thinks of the events and opinions revealed in the diaries we must piece together bit by bit as we learn more about her own place and history in the household.
As for the flashbacks, it seems natural, even necessary, for Milla to reminisce on her life as a farmer, beginning in 1946 when she becomes engaged to Jak de Wet and encompassing all the challenges and sorrows she endured in order to make a living off the land. After all, she has nothing but her mind, her memories. These flashbacks hint at the entire history of South Africa while gradually revealing the knotty secrets of Milla and Jak’s marriage and raising questions about Agaat’s complex role in the household: somewhere between friend and servant to Milla, despised and distrusted “woolly” to her embittered husband Jak, second mother to their son Jakkie. And while one might well expect to learn a great deal about farming—the symptoms of and treatments for botulism in cattle, the causes of pig measles, how to dose a poisoned bull—in these sections, there is also much unexpected beauty in the language and the imagery.
Van Niekerk has written two critically acclaimed novels so far, but she was first a poet, and in the prose poems that trace the progression of Milla’s illness from the initial appearance of symptoms to the moments before her death, she gives her poetic impulse free reign. The results are breathtaking, and not just because it is rare to encounter such prodigious gifts in a work of fiction:
…i clamp myself gather my waters my water-retaining clods my loam my shale i am fallow field but not decided by me who will gently plow me on contour plough in my stubbles and my devils’s thorn fertilise me with green manure and with straw to stiffen the wilt that this wilderness has brought on this bosom and brain? who blow into my nostrils with with breath of dark humus? who sow in me the strains of wheat named for daybreak or for hope? how will my belated harvest reflect and in what water? who will harvest who shear who share my fell my fleece my sheaf my small white pips? who will chew me until I bind for i have done as was done unto me the sickness belongs to us two.
What saves the novel from being an incoherent showcase of the author’s skills are the many brilliant resonances between the different sections: the subtle glint in one of the prose poems of an image we will later encounter in a flashback section, the spinning out in a diary entry of an event alluded to in a flashback, a small detail in a deathbed scene picked up in a flashback and turned into an answer to a question we didn’t know we had.
A concrete example to illustrate these abstractions: in a series of diary entries from 1960, we see Milla supervise Agaat’s first sheep-butchering lesson. Agaat is at the time twelve or thirteen, and it’s clear to us that some unspoken emotion simmers beneath her surface: perhaps disgust, perhaps just the fluctuating resentments of a girl that age. In the process of butchering the sheep, Agaat bloodies her dragging right sleeve. (Her clothes are all made with a longer right sleeve to conceal, by her own choice, the deformed arm.) When the butchering is over, Milla tells Agaat to wash up and orders another servant: “…go and fetch my old red jersey in the bedroom she can’t walk around any longer in that blood-stained thing.” But Agaat refuses to put on Milla’s red jersey. Milla reports Agaat’s response in her diary: “I have another jersey like this one she says where’s my jersey I want my own jersey it has the right sleeve.”
sleeve
It is just another domestic detail in a long record of domestic details: Milla’s diaries abound with lists, plans, projects undertaken and unfinished. Easy enough to overlook or forget the red jersey, or to accept Agaat’s explanation for her refusal, for it is true that Milla’s red jersey does not have one longer sleeve. But the moment stuck, for some reason, in my mind—and sure enough, hundreds of pages later, the red jersey appears again, and the mystery of Agaat’s reluctance is solved for us, as are dozens of other little mysteries planted here and there (the silver bell Agaat brings Milla in her sickbed even though Milla is incapable of ringing it to summon her; the letterbox-style flap in the door of Agaat’s erstwhile bedroom) including many I am sure I overlooked on this first reading.
Brass Bell
Any attentive reader will notice that the novel’s ingenious plotting relies on its architecture, its maze of secret passages and hidden entrances. (Though, at almost 600 pages, perhaps it is best compared to a doll’s house the size of a cathedral.) But as a writer—and one with a special interest in retrograde narration—I was floored by what van Niekerk does with these diary entries. The first ones we see are from 1960, and from there they continue chronologically until 1979, when Milla abandons her diary-keeping because her son is grown up and has left home to join the army; apparently she feels on some level that her primary domestic role has come to an end, and with it, the need to keep a record of it. Here—more than halfway through the book—Agaat begins to read out the packet of diaries that she has saved for last, but that in fact record the earliest events, beginning with her own arrival in the household in 1953 and her early relationship with Milla.
The purpose of telling a story backwards is of course that the reader already knows the ending, so that every event leading back from it is imbued with the weight of that ending: thus a glowing, hopeful beginning becomes a heartbreaking one if we already know that hope to be naïve or misplaced. This is abundantly true in Agaat; it is hard to imagine a more devastating ending than the beginning of Milla and Agaat’s journey together. But here this structure is not just an authorial imposition; it reveals Agaat’s own stake in the diary-reading, telling us that it is at least as painful for her to revisit the beginning of her life at Grootmoedersdrift as it is for Milla. When, at least, that beginning is laid out before us, it is not just the facts of it that take our breath away—although the final pieces of the puzzle we have been putting together for six hundred pages are immensely satisfying—but also our understanding of what it must mean for Agaat to read aloud the beginning and for Milla to hear it.
Diary
There are dissertations waiting to be written about Agaat, countless term papers on elements I will have to leave out in the interest of space here. Agaat’s white cap alone, that crowning symbol of her servanthood, deserves hours of analysis, as does the theme of embroidery in the novel, so effectively highlighted on the cover of the Tin House edition (the foreword to an Afrikaner embroidery handbook from the 1960s is, after all, one of the epigraphs to the novel).
But I cannot conclude this review without a word on the outstanding translation by Michiel Heyns. No, I don’t read Afrikaans, but one does not need to to recognise almost immediately that this translation is the work of a master. In his note, Heyns tells us: “Agaat is a highly allusive text, permeated, at times almost subliminally, with traces of Afrikaans cultural goods: songs, children’s rhymes, children’s games, hymns, idiomatic expressions, farming lore.” That he somehow manages to convey the spirit and the meaning of these allusions while preserving the foreign reader’s sense of being a stranger in a strange land is his genius. I could recognize the moments that would mean something different to a reader familiar with Afrikaner culture than they did to me, but what I felt was not exclusion, or frustration, or even resignation; Heyns’s windows into this text are made of glass. You put your fingers to them, feel that dry South African heat, and know that you are invited to look for as long you need to, to ponder and to make your own meaning. I now look forward to reading not only everything van Niekerk has written, but Heyns’s own work too, to experience more directly the powerful intelligence and sensitivity behind the English edition of Agaat. But first I must give my heart time to mend. I may have cried myself to sleep the night I finished Agaat, but I’m convinced I woke up already better and stronger. The best novels shatter your heart, but, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, they also gather up the pieces of you and give them back to you in all the right order. - Preeta Samarasan


In 1976, a 15-year-old boy named Jakkie de Wet comes home from boarding school at Easter to Grootmoedersdrift (Grandmother’s Crossing), the farm in the Cape Province of South Africa that has been in his mother’s family for generations. On such visits, Jakkie’s handsome, bullying father, Jak, usually drags the boy off on manly expeditions — hiking treacherous kloofs (ravines) and ridges, and scrabbling up (and falling off) rock faces — both to monopolize him and to vengefully deprive his mother, Milla, and his nanny, Agaat, of his company. The father is at war with both women; resentful of his wife’s sentimentality and agricul­tural know-how, and mistrustful of Agaat’s bond with his reticent son.
To Jakkie, Agaat is second mother, confidante and almost-sister. To Milla, she is house servant, livestock expert and begrudged support — an almost-daughter in tidy apron and serving cap. Born in 1948, when Milla was 22, Agaat was the castoff child of laborers on Milla’s mother’s property, malnourished and barely clothed, with one good arm and one stunted one. When Milla first met her, she was called Asgat (Bottom-in-the-Ashes) because she crouched in the hearth of the hovel where she lived, a black Cinderella. Milla gave her a new name: Agaat (Dutch for Agatha, which means “good” in Greek) believing that “if you call things by their names, you have power over them.” She resolved to turn the girl into someone “sound and strong, grateful and ready to serve, a solid person who will make all my tears and misery worthwhile,” and brought her into her household. This was a compromised act of charity, if it was charity: the benefactress seeking too large a recompense for her generosity, too self-­interested a cure for her loneliness. Milla’s husband protested her decision from the start. To Jak, Agaat was a “woolly,” a “hotnot” (an Afrikaans insult for a person of color) and a threat to the established social order. But in this, as in little else in her marriage, Milla insisted on her way.
On that 1976 Easter holiday, Agaat schemed with Jakkie so he could relax with his two mothers, “the white one and the brown one,” while his father stormed off to Luipaardskloof with his ropes and his rucksack. At the homestead, the three of them play Scrabble, building off one another’s words. When Agaat wins with “karooquickgrasses,” Jakkie challenges her, but Agaat finds the word in a well-thumbed copy of the Handbook for Farmers, and Milla supports her. “There’s more to a language than is written in a dictionary,” she tells her son. She knows this because Grootmoedersdrift holds many unofficial repositories of language. There are Milla’s diaries of her married life, written in Afrikaans in blue exercise notebooks “to get a grip on your times and days on Grootmoedersdrift, to scrunch up and make palpable the hours, the fleeting grain of things in your hastily scribbled sentences.” And there is Agaat herself. “She was a whole compilation of you, she contained you within her,” Milla thinks. “That was all that she could be, from the beginning. Your archive.”
Books like “Agaat,” the second novel by the South African writer Marlene van Niekerk, set in the last five decades of the departed century, are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them. It’s a monument to what the narrator calls “the compulsion to tell,” expressing truths that are too heartfelt, revelatory and damaging for proud people to speak aloud — or even to admit to themselves in private. Observed from the distance of time, they present a pattern of consoling completeness. Through incantatory visual and aural imagery (van Niekerk is a poet as well as a novelist), “Agaat” brings to life a landscape whose significance lies not only in its outward appearance (“deep kloofs overgrown with protected bush, the old avenue of wild figs next to the two-track road, . . . hills with plots of grass and soft brushwood for the sheep to overnight”) but in the inward imprint it has left on its inhabitants. How startling, how awe-­inspiring, how necessary it is that the ­story van Niekerk assembles here is relayed by a woman who cannot speak.
The year is 1996, and Milla Redelinghuys de Wet, now 70, is in the final stages of A.L.S., “locked up in my own body,” dying in a bedroom at Grootmoedersdrift. Milla, speechless and bedridden, depends utterly on Agaat, as Agaat once depended on her. They communicate with their eyes, as they did from their earliest acquaintance. Agaat searches Milla’s blinks for signals, and interprets them as best she can: pain, hunger, sorrow, pique and, sometimes, irreverence. “That she can’t meet my every need, that she doesn’t know everything I think, that frustrates her beyond all measure,” Milla notices, still conscious, in her physical powerlessness, of her emotional power over her ward.
It is a complete reversal of their original roles. Yet Agaat misses very little. As she tends her afflicted mistress, she converses with her as if Milla’s interior monologue were audible. When Milla craves a bath, Agaat senses it, carries her into the tub on her back, and gets in with her, shoes and all, since there is no other way. And when Milla yearns to see a map of her property, pining (silently), “I want to see my ground, I want to see my land, even if only in outline, place names on a level surface. I want to send my eyes voyaging,” Agaat struggles to construe what it is her patient craves. “She wants to see something, something that’s outside and inside,” Agaat tells the doctor when he visits. He wonders if the nurse is losing her marbles, but Agaat persists until she cracks Milla’s code. “You can rest assured I won’t give up,” she tells her. “I don’t give up and you don’t give up. That’s our problem.”
These days, Agaat calls Milla “Ounooi,” an Afrikaans honorific for “old white woman.” Once, she called her Même, Mother, but that’s a long-buried chapter neither woman would open, even if Milla could speak. These two are not tender people — life has hardened them — but their love for each other emerges in Agaat’s solicitude and in Milla’s private thoughts and journal entries, which this book lays bare. When Milla, her feet cold and immobile, falls into a fretful sleep, she wakes feeling strangely warm and comforted. She finds Agaat asleep, exhausted, at the foot of her bed, cradling her feet, “her head turned aside on her strong arm, the little thin arm is drooped over my ankles.” The ounooi’s feet lie “against her chest, as if she’d gathered them there to hold them, like a child going to bed with a teddy bear.” As death nears and Agaat sits in the sickroom, embroidering, as Milla taught her in girlhood, Ounooi at last loses the capacity to signal with her eyes. She thinks: “Agaat, now that language has forsaken me and one eye has fallen shut and the other stares unblinkingly, now I find this longing in my heart to console you, in anticipation, for the hereafter. Am I vain in thinking you will miss me?” Three years earlier, when she could still speak, Milla would never have said such a thing, nor, had she said it, would Agaat have acknowledged it. Milla’s speechlessness, and her body’s surrender, free them both to speak their hearts at last, one in the book of her mind, inaccessible but through fiction; one in the sickroom, where only her patient hears and reads her.
“Agaat” was first published in South Africa, in Afrikaans, in 2004 — 10 years after the end of apartheid, the racial segregation policy that came into effect in South Africa in 1948, the year of Agaat’s birth. The novel first appeared in English in 2006, fluidly translated by the novelist Michiel Heyns. His pitch-perfect rendering of the music of van Niekerk’s prose reappears in the first American edition, which was released this year (by no coincidence) on April 27, the anniversary of the 1994 elections that brought the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela to power. South Africans call this date Freedom Day. Van Niekerk’s first novel, “Triomf,” a dark satire of an incestuous Afrikaner family in a ­working-class white suburb of Johannesburg (built on the rubble of the black township of Sophia­town), appeared in that historic year. “Triomf” was a sharp, rollicking, bitter allegory of the politicized ­Afrikaner hysteria that accompanied the demise of apartheid. “Agaat,” of course, is also an allegory, but one that covers a greater range, in a more generous and humane register. It is apartheid itself that Agaat and Milla embody, two women, black and white, ink and paper, who together, over 50 years, inscribed upon each other a scroll of wrongs, betrayals and sacrifices that cannot be redressed, only reread. Decades earlier, before she let circumstance distract her from her vows to her ward, Milla felt a moment of exultation, on the evening when she first coaxed the mute young girl to speak. “It doesn’t matter who is who,” she realized. “We are one, Agaat and I.” - Liesl Schillinger

At the beginning of this epic novel, seventy-year-old Milla de Wet is confined to her bed. Once the strong and competent owner of a successful farm inherited from her mother, Milla suffers from A.L.S. and now is left with only the ability to blink her eyes and, after a while, not even that. Milla is entirely dependent on the ministrations of Agaat, her devoted house servant, who wordlessly promises Milla “the best-managed death in history.” It is 1996 in South Africa, just two years after the demise of apartheid.
From this confined vantage point, Milla narrates her adult life story, beginning with her troubled marriage to the dashing, if agriculturally-challenged, Jak de Wet in 1947. Soon after she and Jak settle on her farm, Milla decides to take in and raise the abused young daughter of a farm laborer, renaming the girl Agaat. Long unable to have a child of her own, Milla eventually gives birth to a son named Jakkie, marginalizing Agaat’s position in the family. Over time, Milla and Agaat develop a complex co-dependency, as do Jakkie and Agaat, while Jak becomes jealous of Agaat’s hold over both his wife and his son. Agaat forms the center of a decades-long, multi-dimensional game of tug-o-war: “a pivot she was, a kingpin, you’d felt for a while now how the parts gyrated around her, faster and faster, even though she was the least.”
Agaat is about many things, including marriage, parenting, friendship, sickness, and death. Politically-minded readers will find plenty of support for interpreting the novel as an allegory for apartheid, while those with more domestic interests will appreciate the details on embroidery, ecologically-sensitive farming practices, and home-based nursing procedures. Perhaps Agaat’s most important lesson concerns the importance of communication to achieving lasting change. The best education and carefully constructed systems cannot bridge the gap between master and servant, between white and black. Rather, true understanding is possible only after years of empathetic communication. As Milla nears death, she and Agaat have finally approached this kind of understanding:
[The doctor’s] face looms above mine. He looks at my eyes as if they were the eyes of an octopus, as if he’s not quite sure where an octopus’s eyes are located, as if he doesn’t know what an octopus sees. He shines a little light into my face, he swings it from side to side. I look at him hard, but seeing, he cannot see.
Agaat catches my eye. Wait, let me see, she says.
[The doctor] stands aside. He shakes his head.
Agaat’s face is above me, her cap shines white, she looks into my eyes. I blink them for her so that she can see what I think. The effrontery!  They think that if you don’t stride around on your two legs and make small talk about the weather, then you’re a muscle mass with reflexes and they come and flash lights in your face. Tell the man he must clear out.
A small flicker ripples across Agtaat’s face. Ho now hopalong! it means. Her apron creaks as she straightens up. Her translation is impeccable.
She says thank you doctor. She says doctor is welcome to leave now, she’s feeling better. She says thank you for the help, thank you for the oxygen, we can carry on here by ourselves again now.
I close my eyes. He must think she’s crazy.
Again the fingers snapping in front of my face.
She’s conscious, really, doctor, you can leave her alone now, she’s just tired, when she shuts her eyes like that then I know. Everything’s in order, she says, she just wants to sleep now. I know, I know her ways.
Milla’s disease has the potential to reduce this nearly 600-page novel into an exercise in claustrophobia, but, instead, Van Niekerk has created a work of stunning breadth and emotional potency. Milla’s second-person narration is liberally broken up by her diary entries, which Agaat has decided to read to Milla during her last days, and by italicized paragraphs of Milla’s stream-of-consciousness musings. Van Niekerk is a poet as well as a novelist, and her considerable poetic abilities are on display throughout the novel. Likewise, Michiel Heyns’s masterful work yields an English translation with all the elegant power of the original language. These various elements come together in Agaat to create an unforgettable reading experience that transcends the lives of its four primary characters to implicate the broader world.
Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns, is published in the United States by Tin House Books. Originally published in South Africa, the book won the 2007 Sunday Times Literary Prize and the Hertzog Prize 2007. - Gwendolyn Dawson


Marlene van Niekerk's audaciously innovative first novel, Triomf, drew dark comedy and pathos from a despised, dysfunctional and creepily inbred family of "white trash" Afrikaners anxiously awaiting South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994 - the year when it was published. With its use of slang and deflating assault on the shibboleth of linguistic as much as racial purity, it became the first novel in Afrikaans to win the Noma award for publishing in Africa.  
Published in 2004 as Agaat, and retitled The Way of the Women in Michiel Heyns's English translation, the novel is narrated through the unreliable eyes and memory of Milla de Vet, inheritor of a farm named Grootmoedersdrift, outside the town of Swellendam. Milla, now 70, lies dying of a wasting disease. Paralysed but for her blinking eyelids, she is dependent for even the most intimate bodily functions on another woman, Agaat Lourier. Their intriguingly close yet oddly ambiguous relationship is gradually traced back almost 50 years, through Milla's selective reminiscing and jottings from diaries she has kept since her marriage in 1947.
Agaat, born with a stunted arm on Milla's mother's estate and abused by the family that rejected her, was "saved" at the age of five by the childless Milla and installed on her own farm, rather like what is known in Afrikaans as a hanslam, an orphaned or rejected lamb reared by hand. Yet as a so-called Coloured in the baas's household, the foundling was neither adopted child nor maid, but required to fulfil both roles. The tensions and contradictions in Agaat's position, and the shifting neediness of her madam-cum-mother, are amplified when Milla, after seven years of childlessness, has her own son. Yet Agaat, in a convoluted contest of wills with Milla, subverts her relegation to nanny and uniformed servant by displacing Milla in the boy's affections. "I am a slave but You-are-mine," she whispers in his ear.
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Not long after democracy arrives in the mid-1990s, Agaat faces not only her madam's vulnerable dependence on her but the prospect of personal freedom with Milla's impending death. In less skilled hands, this physical reversal of power could seem too literal and contrived. Yet for Van Niekerk, it becomes not so much a drama of crude payback as a minute exploration of intimate relationships corroded by unequal power, of enforced assimilation and complex strategies of resistance. Agaat learns the manipulative wiles with which Milla ensnared (then enraged) her pretty-boy husband Jak, a self-pitying wife beater and cheerleader for Afrikaner nationalism, who viciously mocks his wife for her "fuzzy foundling" or "Hottentot Madonna", her "pet woolly-lamb".
Milla cannot hold hands with the small girl on visits to town, where Agaat is barred from "whites-only" areas. Yet Agaat's relative privilege on the farm isolates her from other servants and labourers, to whom she in turn metes out the harsh discipline, backed by scripture, with which she was tamed by Milla. All but "turned white", yet enjoined to know her place, Agaat has "the lessons of the masters engraved in her like the law on the tablets of stone".
As the novel shifts in time, nurse Agaat's disquieting combination of caring tenderness and almost sadistic relish, solicitude and control, reveals its perverse origins in the mixed messages of Milla's distance and affection. An impulse to maternal love deformed by both egotism and social strictures finds ironic replication in Agaat's assiduous administering of food, bed baths and laxatives to her immobilised mentor.
Milla's narrative is framed by the return of her son Jakkie, a deserter from the Angolan war who fled to Canada in the mid-1980s. Through a sinister fairy tale from his childhood, we finally hear Agaat's voice. Yet rather as Agaat may have glimpsed redemption in genuine love for the boy, the coercive, self-deluding Milla belatedly realises the limitations of the "perfection, purity, order" she drilled into her charge: "How my heart burns to tell her this! Now that I can see it. Now that it's too late."
The Way of the Women combines the stark intensity of a remarkable death-bed chamber piece, which none the less contains some humour, with a compendious sweep from 19th-century boomtime in the Cape to the Angolan war, from farming manuals on bovine botulism to embroidery patterns and Afrikaans nursery rhymes. Evoking worn images of heroic Boer womenfolk tilling the veld and delivering their own infants, while their menfolk go fishing and nurse hangovers, it subverts them with evidence of cruelty and collusion. If some sections, particularly in the 1990s, could have been trimmed, the novel retains momentum and suspense, with surprises withheld till the end. With its own forensic take on the pathologies of maids and madams, it offers an understated cautionary tale on inheriting the lessons of the masters - and madams - along with their power. - Maya Jaggi




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Marlene van Niekerk, Triomf, Trans. by Leon de Kock,




Abacus, 2000. [1994.]
about (pdf)


This is the story of the four inhabitants of 127 Martha Street in the poor white suburb of Triomf. Living on the ruins of old Sophiatown, the freehold township razed to the ground as a so-called 'black spot', they await with trepidation their country's first democratic elections. It is a date that coincides fatefully with the fortieth birthday of Lambert, the oversexed misfit son of the house. There is also Treppie, master of misrule and family metaphysician; Pop, the angel of peace teetering on the brink of the grave; and Mol, the materfamilias in her eternal housecoat. Pestered on a daily basis by nosy neighbours, National Party canvassers and Jehovah's Witnesses, defenceless against the big city towering over them like a vengeful dinosaur, they often resort to quoting to each other the only consolation that they know; we still have each other and a roof over our heads. TRIOMF relentlessly probes Afrikaner history and politics, revealing the bizarre and tragic effect that apartheid had on exactly the white underclass who were most supposed to benefit. It is also a seriously funny investigation of the human endeavour to make sense of life even under the most abject of circumstances.


An astonishing departure for Afrikaans literature … this is an extraordinary novel and a milestone for South African literature. Those who thought, as I did, that white writing would run out of road in post-apartheid South Africa could not have been more wrong. - Justin Cartwright

The tenderness of the writing, eliciting an unexpected compassion in the reader, is remarkable in a first-time novelist. It is not hard to poke fun at Afrikaners: to reveal their underlying humanity is a much more impressive accomplishment. -  David Robson


In the 1950s, at the height of apartheid, the government bulldozed the multiracial community of Sophiatown in Johannesburg, renamed it Triomf (Afrikaans for Triumph), and resettled it with whites only. This story is about one poor Afrikaans family living there in a house built on the rubble in 1993, on the eve of the democratic election. Ignorant, desperate, inbred for generations, they take care of each other, or try to. Lambert is epileptic. He wants a woman for his fortieth birthday, and Mom, Pop, and his older brother help him. The book is much too long, but the humor is dark, the mixed metaphors are hilarious, and the translation from the Afrikaans is spot-on, capturing the voice of the "white trash" family in all its coarseness and humanity. Everything stays the same. Only worse. You think you guess the family secrets, but they are beyond even that. Bones are broken. Everyone is crippled. But it's the enduring tenderness that tears you apart. - Hazel Rochman


Afrikaans author Marlene Van Niekerk lived for a time in Triomf, the white working class suburb of western Johannesburg built on the bulldozed rubble of Sophiatown, once one of black South Africa's cultural heartlands. Whilst gardening she kept digging up its remnants, just like one of the characters in her novel Triomf, which excavates the lives of the impoverished poor white culture that superseded it. Sophiatown boasted names like Masekela and Mandela amongst its cultural riches but the Benades family inhabit a far from triumphant world of cheap brandy and coke, kaput cars, irreparable fridges and broken political promises. Mol, Treppie, Pop and Lambert Benades inhabit a crumbling government house that is all they own apart from each other. Mol, abused and ageing, is comforted only by her beloved mongrels, her numbed resilience as forlorn as her buttonless housecoat. Alienat Triomf depicts apartheid racism with an uncompromising exactness that has sometimes been lost in white South African writing in English slanted towards a middle class perspective. As the Benades veer between aggressive passivity and directionless activity Whilst the novel makes no pretences about the ugliness of racism, its radical success lies in the way it starkly realises the hard reality that the Benade s' position as whites gives them few privileges. Van Niekerk tells their story in a bleakly hilariou Although Triomf is a startlingly comic yet salutary reminder of the sustenance racism gives to class inequalities, it stops short of representing the social rehabilitation of South Africa's poor whites. In what is possibly the first truly post-apartheid novel by a white writer deserving the description, Van Niekerk opts wisely to leave the hopes of reconciliation beyond the boundaries of her fictional excavation of the suburbs of truth. - Rachel Holmes, AMAZON.CO.UK


Marlene van Niekerk's novel Triomf was one of the first literary texts in Afrikaans to be published in what can literally be called 'postcolonial South Africa'. Incorporating references to the first democratic election in South Africa in April 1994, it appeared only a month or two after the election. The novel recounts the monotonous daily lives of a family of poor white Afrikaners, showing how apartheid failed even those it was ideologically designed to benefit. The family lives in the Johannesburg suburb ironically called Triomf (Afrikaans for triumph), built on the ruins of the black township Sophiatown that was demolished in the fifties by the social engineers of apartheid to create a suburb for the white working class.
It is gradually revealed that the Benade-family of Triomf is a gross caricature of the nuclear family and all the values it embodies: the old man Pop, his "wife" Mol and their "relative" Treppie are actually siblings while the epileptic Lambert is their son (it is not clear whether Pop or Treppie fathered him). Treppie's scheme to establish a refrigerator repair business having failed and Lambert not being able to finish school or hold down a job because of his epilepsy, they depend on welfare pensions for theri livelihood. The suspense in this novel comes from the buildup towards Lambert's fortieth birthday and the election while the reader also waits for the unsuspecting Lambert to find out the truth about his father and mother. The family prepare themselves to escape to the North in their beat-up Volkswagen Beetle if "the shit hits the fan" after the election, but the end of the novel shows the remaining members of the family (Pop has died in the interim) still caught in the same circumstances as before. Nothing has changed and the final moments of the novel depicts them looking at the constellation of Orion over the roofs of Triomf, without a north they can escape to.
Underneath its naturalistic surface the novel is richly symbolic. On a political level the incestuous and inbred Benade-family becomes symbolic of the extremes to which the apartheid philosophy of racial exclusivity led. The novel also discloses the historical circumstances that led to their condition (their ancestors were landowners forced off their land during a depression to become impoverished workers in the railways and garment industry in the city). Their history and family set-up leads to a situation in which anyone outside the family is regarded with the utmost suspicion, prejudice and contempt (as manifested in their crude racism towards blacks and their disgust with the 'dykes' who live across the road). On a religious level the family consisting of two brothers and sister together with their ironically innocent son can be read as a symbolic perversion of the myths of origin found in several world religions, the trinity and sacrificial lamb of Christian religion, the different images of the devil as well as the idea of an apocalypse. The novel also drives the idea of the Freudian family romance to grotesque extremes, going so far as to have Lambert accidentally kill his 'father' Pop.
Although this novel is not exclusively occupied with gender issues it demonstrates more eloquently than any feminist treatise could the position of women in such conditions. The objectification of Mol, the sister of Pop and Treppie and mother of their child Lambert, reaches atrocious depths. She is emotionally, verbally, physically and sexually abused, especially by her brother Treppie and her son Lambert. She is the sexual tool of all three the men and her status as a (sex) object is underlined by the fact that their beat-up car is also called Mol. Racially she is part of a group who considers themselves superior to blacks (her position is symbolic of the failure of the ideology of white supremacy); she is of a class looked down upon by other whites and Afrikaners (as is evident from the reaction of the young Afrikaans couple who tries to recruit their votes for the Nationalist Party) and she is of the gender oppressed by the patriarchal system prevalent in the race and class configuration in which she finds herself.
Triomf, as well as a spate of other novels probing the hidden corners of the Afrikaner psyche in a process referred to as "Afrikaans literature's own truth commission" (Swanepoel 1995: 102), signifies an important element in Afrikaans literature's postcoloniality. In her paradoxical ability to evoke feelings of revulsion as well as compassion for the degenerate Benade-family, the writer illustrates the intricate relationship between the colonial and the postcolonial that has to be negotiated when writing the new South Africa. Van Niekerk's novel demonstrates an awareness of the fact that the colonial cannot be eliminated from the postcolonial in a simple act of political amnesia and that the past has to be confronted rather than evaded when constructing a postcolonial discourse in South Africa
Conclusion
The texts by Afrikaans women writers discussed in this article have shown different ways of engagement with the postcolonial problematic in South Africa. The texts by Viljoen, Krog and Huismans demonstrate their commitment to the project of an oppositional postcolonialism as well as the complexities involved in such a commitment for an Afrikaans woman writer. Scheepers' text shows an attempt to forge new narrative strategies appropriate for a multicultural situation and an awareness of the narrative subject's implication in discourses of power while the text by Van Niekerk represents a preparedness to confront the colonial in the postcolonial. Afrikaans literature -- including these texts written by women -- has shown that it is willing and able to make a meaningful contribution to a postcolonial South Africa as well as the continuous process of defining a heterogenuous postcolonialism. - Louise Vijoen


WITH superb historical timing, American readers have finally been provided with South Africa's only world-class tragicomic novel, the kind of book that stabs at your heart while it has you rolling on the floor. This spring is the 10th anniversary of South Africa's first democratic elections; it's also the 10th anniversary of the appearance in Afrikaans of Marlene van Niekerk's debut novel, ''Triomf,'' a riotous portrait of a burned-out family of hillbilly Afrikaners struggling haphazardly to adapt to the new South Africa.
None of that country's celebrated novelists -- J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink or, more recently, Zakes Mda -- have strong comic instincts. This is scarcely surprising, given South Africa's mutilated history. And yet, as in Eastern Europe, a survivalist strain of dark humor has long enlivened the region's discourse. One hears it in Desmond Tutu's sermons, in the AIDS activist Zackie Achmat's wry jabs, in Sowetan shebeen banter and in the wild bickerings of poor whites like the Benade family of ''Triomf.'' South African playwrights, from Athol Fugard to John Kani, have drawn richly on this comic vernacular. Appropriately, van Niekerk's greatest fictional gifts are theatrical: her impeccable ear and her ability to bring to life a family that never stops creating scenes.
''Triomf'' opens in early October 1993: countdown time to the onslaught of democracy. With pitch-black fingernails, the Benades are clinging to their incest-addled white family values and to their equally decaying heritage of fridge repairs. But the Benades have a plan; they're plotting their escape. If the elections bring trouble, they'll load up their beach buggy (still on blocks) and embark on a post-electoral great trek north to freedom from democracy.
Van Niekerk has set the novel on her country's most haunted ground, a place that in the 1940's and 50's was called Sophiatown. Freewheeling and bohemian, this Johannesburg community gave us performers like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela and a slew of outspoken writers, among them Bloke Modisane -- who, with an exile's romanticism, described it as ''perhaps the most perfect experiment in nonracial community living.'' Too perfect, apparently. In 1955, the apartheid regime began bulldozing this experiment in creative tolerance. Within a few years, the inhabitants had all been scattered by designated race. On Sophiatown's rubble, the government erected a working-class Afrikaner suburb called Triomf, Afrikaans for ''triumph.''
At one point, Treppie hatches a plan to bring Lambert a hooker for his 40th birthday. That way, Lambert will have the chance to experience sex with someone other than his mother. The hooker's visit soon looms larger in the family mind than the national elections. ''When that girl of his comes,'' Lambert insists, ''everyone will just have to put their best foot forward.'' Pop must start wiping his nose; Mol must stop pulling her false tooth nervously in and out; and Treppie must learn to flush their cracked toilet. Then Lambert can tell his ''girl'' that the liquid on the floor is only water. Mol suggests that Lambert buy underpants so his penis won't dangle out of his shorts all the time. ''Women don't like it. That's what his mother says, but what does she know?''
Lambert throws his energy into getting their home spick-and-span for his birthday hooker. He lists 24 things to be done to make the place respectable. (Among them: dip the dog, so the hooker won't catch fleas.) He scratches this to-do list onto his bedroom wall beside the map of Africa that traces the Benades' post-electoral flight path north. There it stays, alongside 23 years of pinup calendars from the local tire store -- all featuring the same model in varied wigs. Also on view are Lambert's paintings, one displaying the intestines of a fridge, another called ''The Jew in the Washing Machine.''
It's a mark of van Niekerk's assurance as a novelist that she keeps the racism and anti-Semitism in ''Triomf'' immaculately casual. The Benades' bigotries are fully integrated (if that's the right word) into the daily this-and-that of family life. Van Niekerk resists the temptation to quarantine her self-satirizing dead-enders behind a barricade of moral disapproval. Instead, she hazards something far more challenging -- pulling us inside their racist minds, each distinctive in its own way.
She shows us people whose prejudice and easygoing brutality mingle with startling tenderness and love, the way they often do in real life. Few writers have attempted this exacting mix. Certainly, the last South African to have mastered the unbroken flow in consciousness of selective decency and raw racism was Gordimer in ''Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants,'' her magisterial short story from 40 years ago.
''Triomf'' is comic writing shot through with serious intent, a complex assortment of tones superbly conveyed by the South African poet Leon de Kock's often exhilarating translation. Crucially, van Niekerk manages to be politically insightful without compromising the colloquial integrity of her characters' voices. Here is Treppie, for instance, musing on South Africa's latest contribution to civilization, an especially unforgiving variety of electrified razor wire:
''Security fencing has become South Africa's biggest single export product. . . . Everyone wants it, all the way from the Sudan to the Kruger National Park and to Chile. Treppie says Mister Cochrane has been invited by the United Nations to go to Bosnia and Hertzego-whatsitsname to come make his fences, so the Moslems and Christians will stop wiping each other out over there. And during the gulf war, just a few years ago, there was lots of interest in Iran and Iraq for Mister Cochrane's fencing. Which doesn't surprise him at all, says Treppie, 'cause South Africa sold cannons to Iraq for that war, and war of any kind always opens up gaps that have to be fenced in again. When those two countries were at war, the government exported security fencing to both of them. The more fighting, the more fencing. The more fencing, the more fighting. That was like killing two birds with one stone. Boom! Snap! says Treppie. Boom! Snap! Boom! Snap! Very profitable. Nowadays, he says, it's not guns and roses anymore. Now it's guns, gaps and fences.''
The Benades emerge as partly self-destroying and partly casualties of history, ironically downtrodden by apartheid's grand plan for Afrikaner uplift. In portraying them, van Niekerk reveals a fine instinct for the class betrayals that shape tribal memory's brittle, xenophobic bonds. (Treppie rails against the well-heeled Afrikaner politicians who, in the name of pious solidarity with volk and vaderland, promised the Benades for 50 years or more that ''there's always a light at the end of the wagon-trek.'')
''Triomf'' is mercilessly funny in a way that extends the writing's compassionate reach. Van Niekerk strips her barefoot Afrikaners naked, but grants them in return the dignity of a literary existence, a place in the layered human rubble of Sophiatown. The Benades are history's has-beens, but they're also one of the most outrageously entertaining families in contemporary literature. They may be sinking fast, but they still put on a hell of a performance. - Rob Nixon

Author Marlene van Niekerk takes Shaun de Waal on a tour of Triomf, the `white’ suburb built on the ruins of Sophiatown and the setting for her searing novel of the same name
`That’s where they have their picnic.” Afrikaans author and academic Marlene van Niekerk is pointing to a small swathe of willow-shaded greenery between the road and the Westdene Dam. “They” are the characters in her novel, Triomf - Pop, Mol, Treppie and Lambert. The Benades.
This violent, incestuous, alcohol-saturated family represents the “poor whites” courted and favoured by the Nationalist government, given jobs on the railways and homes in the new suburb of Triomf. That suburb, with its hubristic name, was, of course, famously built on the ruins of the demolished Sophiatown.
In the novel, Lambert, the 40-year-old epileptic, is obsessively digging a hole in which to store petrol for an emergency trek to “the North” if and when South Africa collapses under the weight of black rule. >From this excavation he draws the fragmented remains of what was once a lively, multiracial area: this is what underlies the white Afrikaner triumph of 1948 and after, the rubble beneath the ideology to which the Benades, in a half-blind tribal way, have so long been loyal.
“That’s where Treppie writes the poem on Peace Day,” indicates Van Niekerk, pointing out another site briefly inhabited by her characters in their occasional peregrinations around that western part of Johannesburg. Few South African novels can be so engraved on the very topography of the city. As the suburb Triomf (in its very name) must always half-recall the history, the politics, the broken lives, underneath its boxy houses, so the novel Triomf is hyper-aware of the urban space beneath its narrative. It both activates an imaginary space - the realm of psychology, pathology, ideology - and inhabits an entirely physical location.
We drive up the hill into Westdene, and Van Niekerk points out what used to be the Ponta do Sol caf-cum-video-shop, where the Benades buy their Cokes and Paul Reveres - and where policemen and their families could get the latest video releases at a discount. The caf has now been renamed and repainted, but it still advertises “new and forthcoming releases”.
Coming over the crest of the hill, we are in Triomf. Van Niekerk used to live here, several years ago - an experience she does not recall with unsullied pleasure. We drive past her old house. She wonders whether the plants she placed so carefully and lovingly in her one-time garden are still there.
A huge oak tree, which was spared by the demolishers of Sophiatown, is still standing. It must have been a landmark even then. Van Niekerk says she can imagine Kofifi gangsters arranging to meet their molls there. The vast tree could be as old as Johannesburg itself.
But Triomf has changed a lot in the last decade or so. It has had a gradual makeover. Houses and walls are now painted in pastel shades of apricot, coral and watery mustard; some have new walls altogether, like the fancy one with little inset pillars. One can’t imagine this wall fitting into the Triomf of old. Van Niekerk says she thinks that was the home of the first coloured family to move into this street after the Group Areas Act fell apart.
Between the stretches of pastel, though, still lurk grey precast concrete walls, their slats topped with sunbursts and wagon-wheels. And tucked between the houses that have been given a facelift are signs of the older Triomf - the occasional pokey little unpainted house with a corrugated-plastic carport squashed between it and its fence. No flowers or trees in the garden. Just a flat swathe of grass.
This is precisely the kind of house one can imagine inhabited by the Benades, by tragic, passive Mol and her troublesome men. One can visualise it as the Benades’ home, its grounds dotted with the remains of immobile Volksies and disembowelled fridges suspended somewhere between breakdown and possible repair. This is just the kind of stubbled kikuyu lawn you can see poor seventysomething Mol being driven out to mow, at midnight, by her raging, drunken son, just to annoy the neighbours. You can almost see her standing at the gate, puffing on a cigarette, next to the makeshift postbox that keeps losing its anchorage. She is wearing her perennial housecoat with a wooden clothespeg in her pocket in case Lambert has a fit and needs something shoved in his mouth to prevent him biting off his tongue.
One can glimpse her, almost, at the local Shoprite. Women with crumpled faces, in baseball caps and tracksuit pants, smoke desultorily in the parking lot; here, the bibbed attendants shooing cars into their places are all white. These are today’s armblankes (poor whites), spiritual if not literal descendants of the people DF Malan’s Afrikaner nationalism set out to uplift, to empower and if possible to enrich. It didn’t help the Benades much. It just filled their minds with unworkable ideological dreams.
In the same centre as Shoprite is the area’s long-time butcher, advertising the 65-year tradition of meat that runs in its owners’ family. Van Niekerk plays with this image in the novel: the Benades’ staple diet may be white bread and polony, but deep respect is accorded a butchery where “they know their meat”. Afrikaner mythology has a special place for vleis - the meal of the hunter, the farmer, a strong dish that gives strength to those unafraid to kill, those unbothered by the spilling of blood. There is a tradition of meat; meat runs in the family.
We continue through Triomf, with Van Niekerk pointing out the various churches. Another kind of tradition - a broken, adversarial one. The local NG Kerk is looking a bit raddled, but the pentecostal church has been given a grandiose and hideous new facade. A huge glass-brick cross is set in the curved face-brick wall, setting off bizarre associations - the glass bricks so beloved of “post-modern” renovators and builders of gyms imbedded in the yellow face-brick that was for so long the mainstay of government builders, brick the colour and texture of schools and police stations.
The brick of Trevor Huddleston’s Church of Christ the King is different: it is darker, smoother, perhaps imported. Maybe it’s just a lot older. The church has been given back to the Anglicans after being passed around a bit in the years since Sophiatown was destroyed and the pesky cleric exiled. Now its windows are firmly barred, but it is easy to slip past the end of the low wall into the unkempt grounds. Still a landmark, this is the church described in Van Niekerk’s novel (by the poetic Treppie) as being like a great ship riding on the top of the ridge. It certainly has an impressive tower - no mere upstart NG steeple.
This is a tower you can climb up inside, four or five storeys high, with windows that must look out a long way in all directions, south toward Soweto and north toward Westpark cemetery. From the ground you can see the high-rise police barracks that sit on the border of the graveyard.
Down the hill from the church is the rubbish dump, another location that has its part to play in the novel. There, Lambert searches for wine boxes so he can take out the silver bags inside to store petrol for the trek north.
One of the warmest encounters in Triomf takes place at the dump’s gates, when the reeling Lambert is rescued by a black man, Sonnyboy. Seen through Lambert’s consciousness, Sonnyboy is referred to repeatedly as “the kaffir”, but the whole passage is permeated with irony, and the way Sonnyboy handles Lambert’s racism and condescension toward the man who has just saved his life is highly amusing. “Big boss, ja baas. Ek’s maar net a kaffir by die dumps, baas, okay? I catch flou whiteys here. That’s my job, yes?”
Unemployed men (“loose kaffirs” in Triomf- speak) no doubt still wait opposite the dump gates, as described in the novel, in the hope someone will need them for a day’s work here or there. Inside the dump, people scrabble for oddments they can use or sell; across the road from the entrance such bits of salvaged debris - bits of old crockery, television aerials - are displayed in neat rows.
We drive into the dump, a freelance dump- assistant running alongside the car until it is pointed out to him we haven’t come to dump anything, just to look. But the dump is so much neater than Van Niekerk remembers from years ago: it has been encircled by a precast wall, the big rhomboid bins (one labelled “PAC” - in the novel it is “One settler, one bullet”) set neatly in a central oval depression. They seem to contain little more than pruned branches and leaves.
We pause there a moment, looking up toward Huddleston’s church on the crest of the hill, then head back to Van Niekerk’s house, just the other side of Westdene, for a glass of wine and a chat.
But she doesn’t really want to talk much about Triomf. That was years ago, she says. It’s in the past. She’d rather talk about a story she’s working on at the moment, called The Proctologist. She hauls out a number of medical books - “fantastic stuff!” - with garishly grotesque pictures of operations on the colon, the sphincter; one is a photo- album of instances of “the anal fistula”. The area of the lower pelvis, she informs me, is “an interesting configuration of muscles”.
Yet she can’t dispense with Triomf so easily. The book has a new life now. When it originally appeared, it caused the raising of eyebrows among Afrikaans literati and readers unsettled by both its rawly colloquial language (with the full panoply of obscenities) and its disturbing subject matter. The novel was first published in 1994, the election year in which it is largely set. The novel’s action moves relentlessly toward that epochal event - and toward Lambert’s 40th birthday, when he has been promised the gift of a prostitute by Treppie.
Triomf went on to win the CNA Literary Prize, the M-Net Book Prize, and finally the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, which is about the biggest international prize there is for African writing. When this newspaper did a feature on the 10 best South African novels of the past 10 years, Triomf triumphed once more. The feature was intended originally to focus on English books, but many of those consulted and asked to vote added Afrikaans works, and Triomf came up again and again. Eventually we added a set of five much-mentioned Afrikaans novels as a sidebar to the English-language hit parade; Triomf was in the lead by some considerable distance.
Now this claustrophobic family epic has been translated into English by poet Leon de Kock - in two versions. One, published this week in South Africa by Jonathan Ball and Queillerie, retains much slang and Afrikaans, preserving the unique flavour of the original. A fully Anglicised version will be published later this year by Little, Brown in the United Kingdom.
De Kock was not the first to attempt the translation of Triomf. Others had tried and given up. “It was exceedingly hard,” De Kock, who teaches at Unisa, told me in an e-mail. “But incredibly rewarding. The early phase was one of the finest experiences of my life. I lived inside the space between the two languages. `In translation the original rises into a higher and purer linguistic air,’ Walter Benjamin once wrote, and I began to taste something of that meta-space.
“Translation strips the writing process of the psychodrama, the exaggerated terrors and phyrric triumphs, of the ego. It is the highest possible form of reading and it takes you into the heart of writing’s secrets - I recommend it strongly to all kinds of authors.”
Then the hard work really began. “I have lost count of the number of drafts the book took. The process felt like sculpting a huge form out of a house-high block of rough-hewn kiaat into an impossibly delicate work of baroque intensity.
“The other massive difficulty was the translation of wordplay. Triomf is a text that shimmers with devilish wordplay. And so, if you know the original text, the reading of the English version is enriched by the awareness of a kind of semantic joust: will he or won’t he find an equivalent for this or that wordplay in the Afrikaans text?”
Translating from one literary language to another is easier than translating from a text filled with the rough vernacular; read an old translation of a slangy Jean Genet novel, for instance, and it feels stilted and very dated. De Kock faced exactly that problem. He searched for “sentences that flew out of the mouth like a speech by a stand-up comedian. I began what I called the `vernacular test’. This meant reading the entire text aloud to myself, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, word by word.
“But those were still early days, even though I thought I was at the end of my tether then already.”
The book was sold by a South African agent in London to Little, Brown for publication in the UK, which meant De Kock and Van Niekerk had to produce an entirely English text. They could retain very few Afrikaans or slang words, however idiomatic they might be in spoken South African English. “In Marlene’s favourite metaphor,” says De Kock, “the whale began bucking. She had warned me when she first asked me to do the translation: `Are you sure you want to bestride a bucking whale?’”
The author and the translator worked closely on the English version of the book. “My analogy for that,” says De Kock, “is a massive three-legged pot of mixed bredie which I as translator had cooked up. Then Marlene came along, sniffed the pot for flavour, and began throwing spices in. Rare and wild spices.”
De Kock had “originally created what I imagined to be a `hybrid’ text, preserving the bredie of South Africa’s bastardised language use. Now we had to find alternatives for meidepoes, bliksem, naai and boep! Not to mention untold variations on moer. I spent a week lodging at Marlene’s house and we worked together for five days solid, thinking we could kill it, fast. Well, it went on for another four months after that. Right down to the proofs. By the end we were utterly spent.”
The ordinary reader of Triomf, indeed, is likely to feel a little spent by the end of this nearly 500-page book, exhausted by the misadventures of the Benades, lulled a little by the poignant patches of tranquillity and then jerked onward, helter-skelter.
As Van Niekerk says, “My editor [at the time of the book’s Afrikaans publication] said to me this book is not well-made because it doesn’t end with a bang. I said I refuse to make it end with a bang - it will just go simmer, simmer out, because it’s not the kind of book that can have a catastrophe at the end. It’s a running catastrophe throughout.”
Yet the traumas through which the Benades drag themselves, and us, are ameliorated by Van Niekerk’s humour, by her compassion, and by a sense that in many ways these damaged, deranged people are just like the rest of us. Fighting for control, trying to construct meaning. Constantly they narrate their own lives, telling themselves stories, whether true or false - going over past experiences whose wounds are still unhealed, or spinning elaborate fictions to protect themselves, their family secrets and their tenuous sanity.
Overarching their individual and familial stories is a perhaps more fantastical narrative, that of Afrikaner nationalism. This is a tale the Benades also tell themselves, with varying degrees of belief in its truth value. Treppie, whom Van Niekerk describes as representative of “the bloody- minded anarchist strain within the Afrikaner bosom”, may have come to question it and seek to undermine it, but old Pop still recalls the 1938 recreation of the Great Trek, when wagons paraded through the streets of Fordsburg and he dove beneath one of them to get a bit of axle-grease on his scarves.
“That story,” Van Niekerk says, “I got from Albert Grundlingh’s essay about the nekdoekke of the Voortrekkers. The people had a kind of popular hype around it - you must get some grease on your nekdoek! That was the sort of memento that was popularised.”
She laughs and shakes her head at the way Afrikaans culture was so assiduously contrived, driven by the ideological needs of power. For that reason, she is suspicious of the flashy rubric of “African renaissance”, with its rainbow-arch trajectory from past golden age to future golden age. As an Afrikaner, she says, she finds it rather frightening.
“We know how it feels to have a whole invention around us. We had a well-oiled fascist state that orchestrated this in a very concerted way, in the churches and schools, everywhere, and brainwashed a whole generation.”
One reason for the Benades’ hollowness, their terminal misdirection, is their (albeit fluctuating) faith in the state. “I don’t think one of those people in the book is portrayed as innocent,” says Van Niekerk. “Neither in their political consciousness nor in their sexual activity. They are all guilty, because they have all, for various personal reasons, contributed to their fate. These people bought into the weak romanticism of Afrikaner nationalism, just as they buy into the weak romanticism of TV ads.”
But, in the end, says Van Niekerk, the book tries to resist both the determinism of personal pathology (“those mad alcoholic inbreeds!”) and the determinism of ideology (“those poor victims of history!”). “In the end,” she says, “I think it’s more allegorical, an allegory of certain types of human solutions to human problems, of possibilities of being within the human condition.
“If people read carefully,” says Van Niekerk, “they will see that all four characters are artists. They all have ways of interpreting or trying to make sense of their lives. Lambert has an obsession with order - he wants things to work. Treppie has a huge problem with nominalism and realism - `What’s in a name?’ ... `It’s all in the mind,’” she quotes a favoured Treppie saying from the book. “Pop and Mol, one could say, are the chocolate-box story-fabricators who want to pad their own existences sufficiently for them to survive the cruelties of life. I think we all do that. I do. You negotiate a certain narrative that helps solve the problems you experience now.
“I try constantly to put a bit of an allegorical level into all the situations in the novel. That’s what I consciously did. But I also think many of the things I did were unconscious. I can’t write without symbolism. I’m a Calvinist. And I know the Bible very well.” - g.co.za/article/1999-04-16-a-novel-that-finds-adversity-in-triomf

Marlene van Niekerk's novel Triomf dramatises a political and psychological crisis in Afrikaner nationalism at the time leading up to the 1994 elections. Taking a psychoanalytic approach to this postcolonial narrative, one may construct a theoretical understanding of how internai violence induced by a nationalist Afrikaner culture is projected outward. Reading van Niekerk's novel as a psychological allegory, one may interpret her characters to be representative of components of an imaginary Afrikaner consciousness ‐ a psyche struggling to come to terms with the history of apartheid and a Utopian nationalist identity. By mapping Jungian archetypes onto the novel's characters, we can theorise about the relationality of particular psychic components of a nationalistically oriented consciousness, and turning to Freud's theory of the uncanny, we can come to understand the struggle between these components. Van Niekerk leads her readers away from the mythologised past of Afrikaner nationalism, and toward a grim confrontation with a repressed, violent history. - Matthew Brophy










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