Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Examining the Servant's Subversive Verbal and Non-Verbal Expression in Marlene Van Niekerk's Agaat

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Examining the Servant's Subversive Verbal and Non-Verbal Expression in Marlene Van Niekerk's Agaat

Article excerpt


The power struggle between Milla and Agaat in Marlene van Niekerk's Agaat (2006) is one based in language. While the matriarch's perspective dominates the novel, thereby presumably silencing Agaat, the servant-cum-nurse employs alternative methods of communication, or mimetic gestures, to undermine Milla's point of view. Through verbal and non-verbal measures, Agaat attempts to counteract the dying woman's story. While these communicative measures rely on their finely nuanced and insidious attributes to function, they contain an essential ambivalence, as the controlling white woman never understands the full implications of her rejected child's communication.


Die magstryd tussen Milla en Agaat in Marlene van Niekerk se Agaat (2006) is gebaseer in taal. Terwyl die matriarg se perspektief die roman domineer, en vermoedelik vir Agaat stilmaak, gebruik die bediende-cum-verpleegster alternatiewe metodes van kommunikasie, of mimetiese gebare, om Milla se oogpunt te ondermyn. Deur verbale en nie-verbale maatreels, poog Agaat om die sterwende vrou se storie teen te werk. Terwyl hierdie kommunikasiemetodes afhang van hul fyn genuanseerde en verraderlike hoedanighede om suksesvol te funksioneer, bevat huile 'n essensiele teenstrydigheid, aangesien die wit vrou nooit die voile implikasies van haar verstote kind se kommunikasie verstaan nie.


In a recent interview with Vrij Nederland, Marlene van Niekerk states that she is concerned in Agaat, among other subjects, with the question: "[Kan] een mens met het gereedschap van de meester het huis van de meester afbreken?" ["Can a person with the tools of the master, break the master's house down?"] (Paris 2008: 48). Van Niekerk believes "Nee, dit kan niet" ["No, it cannot happen"] (2008: 48).

This question is relevant in relation to the central power struggle between the dying matriarch and her rejected foster child, a struggle Willie Burger believes is fundamentally based in language:

Omdat Milla haar spraak verloor, omdat Agaat as kind nie kon praat nie maar geleidelik taal aanleer, omdat vertelling sentraal staan in die roman, is dit dus duidelik dat die ondersoek van taal, van die moontlikhede wat taal bied om die ander te kan ken, 'n sentrale tema in die roman is.

[Because Milla loses her speech, because Agaat cannot speak as child but gradually acquires language, because storytelling is central in the novel, it is therefore clear that the investigation into language, into the possibilities that language offers to understand the other, is a central theme in the novel.]

(Burger 2006: 179)

Although compelled "to articulate [her] experiences in the language of [her] oppressors" (Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin 1989: 175), Agaat's story is "explicate[d] ... in a language other than the tongue [Milla] had taught her" (van Niekerk 2006: 554). (1) Among many other cultural "tools" garnered from her masters, the Coloured woman appropriates the dynamics of the Afrikaans language, that which "she got ... from [Milla]" (p. 365) and "makes of it ... the Lord knows a veritable Babel" (p. 365).

We argue that Agaat is a subaltern, "a person without lines of social mobility" (Spivak 2006: 28), who is "speaking" at a pronounced and basic level, in the sense that she attempts to communicate her subjectivity to her foster mother and, ultimately, to the reader. Her unconventional, mimetic narratives include rhymes, fairy tales, songs and allegorical citations taken verbatim from various sources. When she will not speak, Agaat is engrossed in performative gestures, among them an unusual dance, inscriptions upon her peripheral servant's quarters and furtive embroidery projects (the most significant of which is her embroidered cap, a dense palimpsest of embroidered layers). Precisely because the implications of these performances are negotiated neither in the novel itself, nor adequately examined in emerging critical material, they provide new and productive territory for examination. …

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