Radio Around the Globe
The music in the books of Literary Travel Bookstore Evenaar in Amsterdam.
‘Agaat’, a novel by the South African author Marlene van Niekerk. The book was published a few years ago, but has recently been reprinted on the occasion of the 100 year anniversary of publishing house Querido.
It is the story of Milla, an elderly white woman who suffers from ALS disease, and her black carer Agaat. It takes place on a farm in South Africa called Grootmoedersdrift (Grandmother’s rage), after an illustrious grandmother. It is a large farm with cattle as well as agriculture and the black employees live on the farm. It is the era of the Apartheid.
In the 50s Milla, together with her husband Jak, who has not learned the farmer’s trade yet, takes over the farm from her parents, who have strong doubts about Jak’s abilities as a farmer.
The marriage and cooperation start out promising, but problems soon arise, both private and concerning the farm. Milla has differences of opinion with her husband, but even worse with her mother.
After a few years Milla takes Agaat, a black girl of only 5 years old, home. When Agaat is 15 years old, Milla gives birth to her first child Jakkie. This happens in a car and Agaat helps her, an exceptional accomplishment, which results in very strong ties between the two women.
When Milla falls seriously ill with ALS disease, Agaat takes care of her. Slowly but surely Milla’s body stops functioning until she can only see, hear and blink her eyes to express herself, because even speaking isn’t possible anymore. She is trapped in her own body.
A very large part of the book is about her perceptions, which she cannot write down anymore, but thinks. She hears the farm sounds, the things Agaat does, the rain against the windows and the wind blowing. And she thinks a lot about the past. Agaat reads her diaries to Milla.
But of vital importance is Milla’s sense of being shut out and humiliated because her son has a far better relationship with his father and Agaat than with her, and she almost never sees him.
It is a sad consolation that her son, just as she herself, has chosen for a career in music and graduates as a musicologist.
Music from the book:
Brahms and his forever unanswered love for Clara Schumann in his song Der Tod, das ist die Kühle Nacht.
Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly by Kathleen Ferrier.
The noon witch by Antonin Dvorak, because Milla always calls Agaat a witch.
Cello Sonata by Rachmaninov, to win back her husband Jak.
String Quintet in C Major by Franz Schubert, when Milla misses the music in her life so much.
She goes downhill more and more and Agaat lovingly, but also with some cynicism takes care of her until the end.
We read what Milla feels: ‘I will put my life in her hands as long as she can carry me. No hospital, no pumps, tubes and ropes. Agaat must take care of me, I am her ill Merino sheep, her exhausted earth, her waste land. She has to dig my hole, have the wall plastered white and ingrave the meaning of everything into my gravestone. I lay my last words into her mouth and the last curse or blessing over my perished body in her eye.’
The course of the disease is experienced, or maybe even celebrated, until the bitter end. Gradually it becomes clear how Agaat ended up on the farm. Milla raised her as a house servant, but at the same time as a daughter.
Why you should read this book: To experience in detail about how a critically ill person looks at the world with joy, bitterness and sadness and looks back at powerlessness, beauty and humiliation.
That is wat death would be like, she ponders, to float away in warm water between the rushes.