First US publication of early novel by Andr'e Brink

The Ambassador, by Andr'e Brink. New York: Summit Books. 288 pp. $16.95. Offered by its publishers as ``Andr'e Brink's newest novel,'' ``The Ambassador'' was, in fact, written more than two decades ago, published both in its original Afrikaans and in an English translation. It is new to readers in the United States, but not to those in the United Kingdom or Brink's native South Africa.

The publishers have not done Brink a favor by mislabeling his book, since readers who expect the sophisticated artistry Brink has displayed in his novels ``Looking on Darkness,'' ``An Instant in the Wind,'' ``A Chain of Voices,'' and ``The Wall of the Plague'' will perhaps be disappointed in ``The Ambassador'' if they judge it by the higher standards of these later works. Seen for what it is -- an early novel by a writer beginning to hone his talents -- it is of great interest to students of Brink's fiction and may also win him new admirers.

Like many another first novel, ``The Ambassador'' is a Bildungsroman, a novel of experience, involving themes of initiation and generational conflict. Indeed, what is rather remarkable about this book is that, unlike most South African fiction and Brink's other work, it is unaffected by the overwhelming problem of apartheid, which dominates every aspect of South African life and even much of its art. This tale of an ambitious ``Third Secretary'' at his country's embassy in Paris, his Ambassador, and the odd young woman they both become entangled with might have been written by a novelist of any nationality. That the embassy happens to be the South African mission on the Avenue Hoche has little effect on the story, which takes place outside the realm of ideological politics.

The story is told from several viewpoints. In addition to this intriguing juxtaposition of voices, one is struck by Brink's evocation of the beautiful city of Paris, whose atmosphere subtly permeates the novel. For Brink, as for so many other artists, Paris is, in the deepest sense of the phrase, a state of mind. In his introduction to his recent book of essays, ``Writing in a State of Siege,'' he has gratefully acknowledged the city's significance in his life: ``I was born on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, in the early spring of 1960. . . . I had been born earlier too, of course; and after that cool bright spring morning in Paris I experienced several other births as well, some easy, some traumatic, but none quite so decisive as that one.''

Like Ernest Hemingway, this young expatriate learned to write in Paris, and in this moving novel, shaded with many tones of emotion, one gains an insight into how and why this birth occurred.

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