IT MAY SEEM COURAGEOUS for a man to take it upon himself to "explain" South Africa to the world. However, if that explanation relies on the most facile of cliches ("Somewhere in the South of Africa lives a wild white tribe called the Afrikaners, misunderstood by all, yet fervently believing that God has made a covenant with them to ensure their triumph over the decendants of Canaan"), one feels apprehensive about both the motive and the achievement. Small wonder that in South Africa itself rumor has it, maliciously no doubt, that James Michener's latest stupendous-colossal epic has been commissioned by that government's Information Service.

The angels of the family saga, Zola, Galsworthy, Mann, Roger Martin du Gard, seemed, with good reason, fearful of treading on territory covering more than three or four generations at a time; but Michener has been known to rush through millennia before this, and in The Covenant , set against the backdrop of history from the formation of the earth's crust to the present day, he polishes off a dozen generations of good men and true. After establishing a Southern African lake and two conical hills (known "Sannie's tits" to later generations) as the ranch to which the action can continually revert, the narrative proper commences somewhere between the 15th and 17th centuries, involving three families -- Black (Nxumalo), Dutch (Van Doorn), and English (Saltwood) -- whose intertwined lives embrace the whole of South African history, even if it means manipulating episodes to suit the preconceived popular thesis.

In the time of the first Dutch settlement at the Cape, Willem van Doorn becomes the first to cut through the hedge of bitter almond designed to separate the small white colony from the rest of africa, and to settle in the interior with his Dutch wife Katje (having first fatered some "coloured" children off the Malay slave girl Deborah). Soon after the arrival of the Huguenots, whose history is traced back to the beginning of the Wars of Religion, the Cape Van Doorns split up. While one branch remains behind to prosper as wine farmers and Liberals, the other migrates into the deep interior where they pass through the successive stages of "trekboers" (the wild, heroic Mad Adriaan and his son Lodevicus the Hammer), confrontation with British and Blacks on the eastern frontier, leading to the Great Trek (Tjaart) and eventrually the Anglo-Boer War (Jakob), the emergence of national consciousness based on a Puritanism learned more from books and speeches, it seems, than from experience (Detlev, who later changes his name to "Detleef," presumably Michener's approximation of the Afrikaans "Deetlef": it is but one of many similar errors), and the introduction of a more humane view of life (Marius), as well as the hint, in his offspring, of greater bigotry in the immediate future.

Parallel to this line runs the drama, alternately high and low, of the English Saltwoods; and, to a lesser extent, that of the Nxumalo family. Unfortunately Michener's "White" account of Black life (ranging from Khoisan, i.e. "Bushman" and "Hottentot," to Zulu and Xhosa) remains uncomfortably shallow. In the earlier chapters dialogue tends to the "Me Tarzan" variety; Zulu names designate Xhosa characters (imagine a novel dealing with French characters called Ludwig and Kurt!); and the account seldom probes more deeply than the folkloristic.

As for the mainstream of narrative, such crucial periods in the history of the Afrikaner as the development of the Boer republics are largely glossed over; and when the novel finally reaches home base in its treatment of "apartheid," Michener opts for farfetched melodrama rather than veracity. God knows, apartheid is abhorrent enough in its actual workings (which have been exposed by many South African authors long before this, and often at the risk of personal liberty) not to require the ridiculous embellishment provided by Michener.

In his portrayal of history the author adapts a curious method also characteristic of his earlier novel, The Source : even though well-known historical figures appear in it -- the Trek leader Piet Retief, the Boer general De Wet, Prime Minister Daniel Malan and a host of others -- many of their major exploits are attributed to fictitous characters appearing alongside of them. Imagine a novel prominently featuring Abraham Lincoln but attributing the Gettysburg Address to a fictitious minor character. Among other disturbing results this procedure makes Detleef van Doorn personally responsible for drafting practically all the obnoxious apartheid legislation since 1948 -- which does not only act against a suspension of disbelief but also ignores the entire broadly based historical process Michener is so eager to demonstrate, namely national involvement in the Covenant rather than indivdual idiosyncracy.

True, Michener makes it very clear that "this is a novel and to construe it as anything else would be an error" -- yet he opens the book with four pages of acknowledgements listing sources (including some rather startling ones) for practically every aspect dealt with in the narrative. But the point is not that Michener distorts history: even though he grossly oversimplifies at times and demonstrates himself to be on rather shaky ground at others (as in the chapter on the Zulu leader Shaka), the major failure of the novel lies in the fact that it clings so frantically to the surface of history. There is a lack of that complete and confident immersion in history which makes imagination possible and transforms fact into insight or vision -- with the result that The Covenant reads like an illustrated history for high-school students, with bits of "dramatization," sentimental, farcical or pretentious, to make it appear more digestible. More pertinently, The Covenant is an account of the externals of history, not an expression or interpretation of a condition of men.

In previous works Michener may have impressed through an ability to sweep through vast tracts of history, but here he only plods and dodders. Wading through this boring "epic" one feels like watching one of the large birds of Africa taking a run, great unwieldy wings flapping, in order to gain the momentum required to become airborne: only this one never takes off, never soars. There are rare moments, notably in the chapter on the Trekboers, when a hint of epic breadth briefly opens up, only to be spoilt by a pastiche of the worst purple passages from Deep South fiction in the '30s: young man passionately pouncing on prospective bride; drunken father attacking him; girl striking father unconscious with log; young couple wrestling on filthly pile of straw . . . .

In nine pages of Herman Charles Bosman, or Athol Fugard, or Nadine Gordimer there is a more quintessential grasp of (South) Africa than in 900 by James Michener. In attempting too much he offers too little -- and breadth is a meager substitute for intuition. Crowding the narrative with a turbulence of minor incidents and accidents the essential epic sweep is lost; no vision illuminates the dreary gloom. Essentially, the novel lacks solidity, a sense of place, a sense of landscape; an experience of people rooted in a particular earth: the laborious Cook's tour offered here makes a mockery both of fact and of fiction.

Stylistically, The Covenant is a depressing experience: not because it is badly written but because it is mildly competent -- the work of a tired, pedestrian plodder, far removed from the crispness and brightness which, so many years ago, characterized the author of Tales of the South Pacific .