23 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated by Michiel Heyns

Language: Afrikaans
Country: South Africa
Publisher: Tin House
Pages: 579

Why This Book Should Win: It explores a complex web of human relationships at a familial and national level without ever leaving a single room; and because, as Liesl Schillinger says in her review of the novel published in the NYT Book Review, “Books like Agaat . . . are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them.”

Today’s entry is from Gwen Dawson, who runs the always excellent Literary License blog. And who will be joining the BTBA judging panel for 2012.

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.

Dinner by César Aira
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .

Read More >

We're Not Here to Disappear
We're Not Here to Disappear by Olivia Rosenthal
Reviewed by Megan C. Ferguson

Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .

Read More >

The Queen's Caprice
The Queen's Caprice by Jean Echenoz
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .

Read More >

French Concession
French Concession by Xiao Bai
Reviewed by Emily Goedde

Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .

Read More >

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .

Read More >

The Cold Song
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann
Reviewed by David Richardson

Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .

Read More >

This Life
This Life by Karel Schoeman
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .

Read More >