Turbulent South African Scene for Suspenseful Novel

AN ACT OF TERROR. By Andre Brink, Summit Books, 834 pp., $25

IS violence or terror ever justified as a political tool? This question reverberates through Andre Brink's novel "An Act of Terror." It's taken up by dozens of characters through a narrative that defies chronology and, sometimes, strict logic. And not one of their answers is simple or conclusive.

The author allows for the instant reply most of us brought up with rules for decent behavior have: "Of course not." But the issue never rests there. Even when innocents are killed in the attempt to assassinate the man atop the repugnant apartheid system, the people who planned the car bombing can't be summarily condemned. Brink wants us to have a long, hard look at their thinking.

In this intricately woven story, the dead bystanders become yet more people swept up in a tragedy the cast of which spans the turbulent ethnic landscape of South Africa and reaches deep into that country's history. The motives and purposes of today's activists/terrorists were shaped by the imperative of altering the script - but do they in fact only succeed in further staining it with blood and tears?

The novel's central character is Thomas Landman, a young Afrikaner who has turned from his people politically but finds the cultural and emotional ties unbreakable.

A photographer whose work has branded him "dangerous," he is revolted by the daily injustices that most of his clansmen choose not to see.

His determination to record apartheid's violence during the "emergency" of the 1980s - the system's death throes, it now appears - brings him into fellowship with black activists and exiles. When a South African raid into Lusaka, Zambia, takes the lives of his best friend - a black expatriate and liberation strategist - as well as the friend's beautiful wife and their young son, something in Landman snaps.

He joins the resistance "organization" in Cape Town, falls in love with another radicalized Afrikaner - a young woman in the cell - and plots a bomb attack on the state president.

Brink's narrative traces - again, never in a straight or predictable way - the events set in motion by this "act of terror."

Landman, in his flight from the police, takes brief refuge with various members of his family, who have no idea of his crime.

Later the brother he has always fought with gives Brigadier Bester, a shrewd Cape Town Special Branches officer who has long had a "hook" out for Landman, the crucial bit of information that identifies him as the bomber.

At one point Landman gives a ride to a black man trying to return to his township who wishes the system would just leave him alone to live a normal life with his family. Then he picks up a terrified "troopie," or young white soldier, who is about to be sent north to fight against guerrillas.

All these figures, including the folksy and vicious Brigadier, have their say about Landman and South African society in bits of inner monologue inserted into the story.

The voices are often crude, sometimes disjointed. The effect is a wide-angle picture of South Africa's drama - and a bumpy, swerving narrative that heightens the police-chase suspense.

That suspense keeps the reader going through more than 800 pages - including the last 200, Landman's chronicle of his family's 13 generations in South Africa.

But it's the moral wrestlings of the characters that make the book not just exciting but deeply interesting. Landman has to face the human destruction caused by his calculated act of terror - not just the dead bystanders, but the death of his lover, who is killed by the police, and of a second young woman, who falls in love with him and accompanies him on his final, frenzied escape from South Africa. She too, is killed - but not by the police.

Toward the end, Brink puts these words in Landman's consciousness: "I had come to believe that to put an end to the blood I had no choice but to spill some too: but whether that was confirmation or betrayal of my humanity I can no longer say for sure, because all that has happened is that I have been added to the catalog of killers. With the loss of simple answers the questions too have become infinitely more difficult."

Brink has no answers, simple or otherwise, just a grim determination to make us face the questions. And though his story predates, by a little, today's rapidly reforming South Africa, the questions it raises still reverberate there - as elsewhere - in the actions of radicals, white or black, who don't like the changing script.

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