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Marlene van Niekerk: “So it is a risk, this business of writing”

Hans Pienaar recently conducted an email interview with Marlene van Niekerk for an article for Independent Newspapers. Here is the full interview.

Parallels have been drawn between Agaat and Disgrace. Do you think the former can be read as a response to the latter?

I did not consciously intend the book as a direct response to Disgrace, no. Like most readers I was, of course, and still remain, pierced to the quick by Coetzee's book. Also because I read it as a masterfully conclusive move in the "South African story" that he develops from the outset of his writerly project, ie the horrific foray of Jacobus Coetzee into the interior and his return to his homestead with the "sacrificial" lamb bloody upon his shoulder. (Dusklands). In Disgrace the sheep reappear, cruelly tethered on the barren soil by the new masters of the land. Instead of focusing on that festive slaughter, it is a kind of sacrificial dog (maybe a kind of prelude to the suicide that the protagonist could be considering?) that Coetzee stages in the final heartrending movement of the book.

No serious writer in this country can ignore the compelling fictional dialectics (a dialectic sustained in the detail!) that Coetzee has developed with regard to the questions of asymmetrical power, territory, soil, occupation, frontiers, identity, difference, the Other, the subaltern, with which our consciousness in this country is fraught. Coetzee moves deftly and cunningly in the extreme reaches of fictional possibility. I often feel that he has exhausted and finalised the contorted "options of being" available to people in a post-colonial arena. I do not think Agaat plays in the same league at all. Also because I do not have the powers of understatement and the relentless minimalist style that I so envy in Coetzee. So back to your question: Are there parallels? I think the main difference is that in Agaat I am specifically interested in the intimate relationship between two people, the dynamics between them. And yes, Agaat, is also about power, and yes, it is about land too. There is also quite a bit of sheep slaughtering in Agaat. But I have a feeling you might be plotting for more.

The chief male character in Agaat represents an exploitative capitalist approach to farming, while the two main women characters embody a more harmonious relationship with nature, insisting on farming methods that are more attuned to natural cycles. Can Agaat be read as providing an alternative to the current exploitative dispensation on most South African farms?

Oh goodness, I don't think novels provide blueprints for non-exploitative soil management or unfair labour practices on farms! I think novels are texts of structured ambiguity that enables many readings. My reading of my text is no more valid than yours at this or any other point. What I am mainly interested in as a writer is to complicate matters (including these matters that you have raised now) in such a densely patterned way that the text will not stop eliciting questions and that it will refuse to provide any definite answers to questions such as the ones you (and I) might ask. My chief concern - ambition maybe - is that the text patterning might be so impenetrable that it will keep on producing questions even when current conditions in real life and on real farms have changed. This all has to do with the status of referentiality in fiction, and I would need quite a few pages to explain … I write because I do not know the answers. If I had known the answers to real-life problems on farms in South Africa, and if suggesting alternatives to farming praxis were my paramount aim, I would have written a manual for soil conservation in the Swellendam area or a piece of party propaganda for the Green Party of South Africa. But I did not. I do not want to get bored when I write; it is lonely enough sitting down and doing it.

So apart from these general fundamentals about fiction, I can refer to the main textual device that I have employed in Agaat in order to complicate matters, including matters of farming praxis. The chief male character, as well as the character Agaat, are known to us only from the perspective of, and therefore in the judgement of, an extremely unreliable narrator. Milla de Wet is a self-indulgent, delusional diary-keeper, a vainglorious and self-justifying memory machine, an invalid delirious from lack of oxygen lying powerless on her back in a bed. If she manages to convince you of alternative farming methods I can only say that I have managed to make you fall for the ramblings of a sick mind - and that pleases me no end.

Some would say that the book does contain a treatise or two about farming methods, slowing it down somewhat. And you use an extract from an agricultural manual as a motto. Let's globalise the question: Can women farmers save the continent?

It is a very important question and I am glad that you asked it; it has to do with the specific way in which fiction refers to the world.

Of course I have wild little fantasies about that like everybody else. For instance: women are powerful, but they have to become their own masters as well. They have to stand together and they have to gain complete material and psychological independence. They all have to read Keep It Small by Fritz Schumacher and see to it that the book is translated into all the indigenous languages. Also Robert Berold's book about that Lesotho farmer. Apart from studying about these things they have to make poetry and sing and dance and be teachers to the young. They can use sex as a bargaining chip to get their way, to get the poles planted and the fences put up around their farms and their theatres and their schools. One can fantasise about self-sustaining communes of women, with men being around only when they are needed for hard physical labour and for reproduction, which is strictly controlled by women. If there are any men left over after they have eradicated and exploited one another on the outside, and if they have learnt their place and have also become their own masters instead of lording it over others and of defining themselves only in terms of power, when they have discovered for themselves instead a soft communicative universalism, they can be re-involved and the fences taken down, and the continent will be saved.

And this, I can assure you, would make the most horrifically bad novel south of the Sahara.

Not necessarily.

Yes, necessarily, because it is a fantasy.

Well, then you are proving my point: real novels are about the problems of the real world!

Real novels have a reality effect.

Talking about Coetzee, and if you will pardon the analogy, it could have been the same interrogation of a literary text within the wrong framework of referentiality that might have inspired the ANC's presentation to the HRC in 2001 in which Coetzee's portrayal of black people was found to be racist. They had an opportunity to apologise for that when they congratulated him on the Nobel Prize, but they did not. It is a disgrace. There has always been a problem, it would seem, in this country to distinguish between propaganda (whether political or ecological) and literature. The old Nats did not understand it and neither, it would seem, do some of the new Black Nationalists. Not to mention the New Afrikaner Nats. The sulky intellectual vanguard of the latter group espouses a propagandist aesthetic that apparently makes it possible for them to champion a reactionary book like Oemkontoe vir die Nasie by Piet Haasbroek as a harbinger of "the birth" of the New Afrikaner. If these people would just glance down at themselves they would see that this New Afrikaner has already been born and that he is wearing a nappy. Instead of droning and thrashing on and on about our so-called identity we should grow up and sit ourselves down and write works of science, social analysis, anthropology and fiction that would feed and (dis)play and gentle the Afrikaans language to such a degree that the works themselves call for translation, and help to create a dynamic of eager communicative exchange with other cultures and experiences.

It seems that in the current volatile phase of identity-mongering amongst nationalists of different hues even complex literary texts are abused, ie interpreted with a greedy opportunistic lens, in order to make the necessary enemies or friends for exclusivist ethnic agendas. But then, literary texts set themselves up for abuse. Everything of worth is defenceless.

Well, to get back to the book: I agree it is not so simple - there is another reading of Agaat apart from the one that sees her as saviour of the continent. One can detect militaristic tendencies in Agaat's apparently disciplinary approach, revealed towards the end. This is quite different from the physically feeble women in Disgrace. Does Agaat move beyond post-feminism to a more subtle yet resolute post-post-feminism?

You might have a point here: a saviour of the continent maybe, but not a very savoury one. I can embroider on your construction of the book to see whether it is productive of more story.

I would not like to be a member of Agaat's future kibbutz on Grootmoedersdrift. She would permit only socialist or nationalist realist poetry, most likely simply kitsch for her subordinates, while she, because she had been brought up to be inquisitive about tantalising phenomena, might secretly be reading poems by Hölderlin and a book by Adorno that Jakkie has forgotten on the farm. But it might be a long, long time before she works out how these texts could change her praxis. Survival and good order, good bookkeeping, would be her first priorities. As "boss-girl" she has learnt all the worst lessons of coercion and oppression and corrupting of the poor from her former masters. She would decide what is best for everybody. An enlightened dictator as far as matters of economy, health and hygiene are concerned, but oblivious to the emotional needs of others, their personal worth and independence of spirit. She might be worse than her masters. She might use violence, emotional blackmail, religious rhetoric, indoctrination, regular "dop" rations, starvation tactics and the like to enforce the status quo that she desires. She might bare her malformed arm to the people and say, "See what they have done to me, and an injury to me is an injury to you, therefore you have to obey my laws and tolerate the little luxuries that I allow myself. One night she might be murdered in her sleep in her own yard, by her own underlings or by those she has excluded. She is not pirate Jenny. On the scale of evil, by the way, the poor sod Jak, the capitalist, is no match for Agaat and even less of a match for his conniving wife, the madam who taught her maid every trick in the book. I don't think, quite frankly, a sequel to Agaat along these lines would work, Hans. Who would tell it? Agaat's maker is dead.

I think, quite frankly, you are being evasive. And I am one of the few readers who think the novel is two words too short: "(Word Vervolg)"!

And I think a reader should read between the lines, to hear the notes in between, as it were. An interview like this is like the fictional text produced between the analyst and the analysed. I have told my tale and you want to find out what the real problem is! But maybe it's your problem, not mine!

Writers have their own non-fictional opinions, surely, on these matters? Otherwise why call them authors? The political subtext in Agaat seems to develop into a model based on the hand-over of land to a new generation only when the new owners have undergone a lifetime of intimate education and training. Quite the opposite of the Zimbabwean model of land-grabbing, for instance. Can such "lessons" be transplanted into a broader programme, or is Agaat doomed to be a unique and therefore tragic figure?

I am not a politician, so I would not be able to say whether such "lessons" could or should be transplanted into a broader programme. The government cannot even find ways of transplanting effectively lessons about Aids infection into a broader programme. Soap operas might do the job. And soap operas have to have victorious, or at least consolable, heroes. Characters "doomed" to be tragic designate an extreme possibility of being. An extreme possibility like the one embodied in the character of Agaat is always designed from a place of hope, or at least from a place where something else is the norm. In the book this hope is attributed to Milla, who has been fictionally designated as Agaat's creator. Her hope is that she has given Agaat enough for the future even while having taken from her. But Milla, remember, is busy negotiating for herself the psychologically most comfortable position from which to cross the threshold to death. So she needs hope, she needs a place of resolution in order to breathe her last in peace. She needs to be reassured that she has not been all that bad. She again only has Agaat, a creature of her own making, to help facilitate this position for her.

So if you can detect the "the real problem" in this puzzle, you are welcome; I can't, thank God. You'll have to make do without "a full confession" from me. I do think the book is political, as all books are, but I don't think it "proposes" models and programmes for land reform or allegories for transformation in general. It is raw material that may become provisionally explanatory and coherent when your interpretational desire orders it that way. One thinks of David Mamet's considerations in this regard. He says the fascinating question of art is: What is between A and B? That is, if I understand him correctly, between the beginning and the end. One can fly from one trapeze to another, he says, but can one do a triple somersault?

So it is a risk, this business of writing. One starts by setting in motion certain forces of which you are not the master - forces of language, forces of the unconscious - and then focus as best you can while you hurtle through space.

I was hoping to write something that would confound me.

Click on book cover and buy Agaat from
Click and buy Author: Marlene Van Niekerk
Publisher: Tafelberg
ISBN: 0624042065
Format: Softcover
Price: R250.00

LitNet: 02 Junie 2005

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