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An unflinching tale of South Africa

NONE TO ACCOMPANY ME By Nadine Gordimer; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 324 pp., $22

OVER the past five decades, Nadine Gordimer's novels and stories have portrayed the sometimes rigid, sometimes changing face of South African society as seen through the eyes of politically engaged people - black and white - struggling to transform it. Fittingly, her latest novel unfolds in the dramatic, violence-riddled period of transition following the release of Nelson Mandela and leading up to the historic all-race elections that took place last April.

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``None to Accompany Me,'' her 12th novel and one of her strongest in recent years, focuses on a small cast of characters going through upheavals in their private lives that are directly and indirectly related to the vaster alterations affecting the nation as as whole. Although the characters are clearly representative types recognizable to anyone familiar with the South African scene, they also have the patina of believably distinctive individuals: real people living through uncertain times.

The central figure is Vera Stark, a mature, tough-minded white lawyer who lives in Johannesburg and works for a foundation originally dedicated to helping black communities resist forced removal from their homes. Now, in the wake of recent reforms, the foundation is also working to help rural blacks reclaim land that was taken from their ancestors.

``Nobody can con Vera, her colleagues agree with satisfaction,'' Gordimer writes. Despite - or perhaps because of - her ``discouraging coldness'' and ``quiet acerbity,'' Vera's colleagues and clients have come to respect and rely on her. She has earned the trust of her clerk, Oupa Sejake, a young black man who served time as a political prisoner and who is pursuing a law degree. She also has a solid, undemonstrative relationship of mutual esteem with Zeph Rapulana, a middle-aged African schoolteacher involved in a case against a white farmer.

As the novel opens, political exiles are coming home from abroad: members of a formerly banned movement (here, simply referred to as the Movement, but quite obviously the African National Congress) now expected to take its place at the helm of the new South Africa. Among the returnees are Vera's friends Didymus and Sibongile Maqoma and their teenage daughter.

The Maqomas have been existing in a permanent state of uncertainty, with Sibongile living in London with their daughter, never sure when her husband would next surface from his clandestine assignments. Ironically, on returning to South Africa, the outspoken but relatively inexperienced Sibongile wins election to the Movement's interim council, while Didymus is passed over.

Gordimer's deeply felt, keenly observed portrait of a society in transition is a long way from agitprop. Without in any way casting doubt on the justice of black demands, she pays full attention to the tensions within the anti-apartheid movement and the tide of violence threatening blacks and whites.

In Vera Stark, Gordimer has created a fascinating, admirable, in some ways appalling, heroine, whose capacity for commitment is exceeded only by her curious aura of detachment. Involved as she is in the political changes sweeping her country, and in the personal lives of colleagues, friends, and family, Vera is a solitary: a self-sufficient woman intensely uncomfortable with any form of human dependence. One begins to grasp the depths of Vera's problematic personality when she turns against her husband Bennet for being too devoted to her.

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A novel that raises more questions than it answers, ``None to Accompany Me'' is an unflinching and perceptive exploration of people living on the brink of changes - political and personal - with little but their own sense of self-reliance to guide them.

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