WE TOO EASILY forget that a handful of novels have done more to concentrate the mind of the public on particular wrongs than all the speeches of politicians or the reports of congressional committees. Uncle Tom's Cabin illuminated the evils of slavery more vividly than all the sober facts gathered by abolitionist societies. The novels of Charles Dickens aroused the conscience of Victorian England. And in this small group there must surely be Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, which made the racial inequities of South Africa a matter of international concern.

Now, he has written Ah, But Your Land Is Beauiful, a novel that deals perceptively with the evolution of apartheid in the 1950s. The first volume of a projected trilogy, the book begins where the first volume of his autobiography Towards the Mountain left off. It is a vivid and telling picture of the period. Freed from the confines of footnotes and consideration for the feelings of friends and colleagues, Paton the novelist ranges widely through those years.

Unlike that period in the United States, the '50s in South Africa was a period of ferment, of political activity and of protest, as the National Party, newly in power, hastened to redress Afrikaner grievances and to legislate and enforce the separation of the races. The unreflecting crudity and lack of sensitivity of those early actions provoked an immediate response from both blacks and whites. Paton's book begins with the Campaign of Defiance and ends with the appointment of Hendrik Verwoerd, the intellectual architect of separate development, as prime minister.

Alan Paton, as a founder and a leading member of the Liberal Party (formed in 1953 and forced out of existence by the Political Interference Act of 1968) is, of course, not unbiased, but he is uniquely qualified to write of this time. He was friendly with many of the public figures who appear in the book--Chief Albert Luthuli, Archbishop Geoffrey Clayton, Father Huddleston and Mrs. Helen Joseph--is knowledgeable about Afrikaner attitudes and was intimately involved in some of the political activity he describes.

In creating a cast of fictional characters whose roles will be familiar to readers of other South African novels, Paton comes perilously close to clich,e: the beautiful, dedicated political activist, Prem Bodasingh; the conscientious and idealistic headmaster, Robert Mansfield; the Afrikaner civil servant whose letters to his aunt attempt to address her fears about the direction the Afrikaners are taking; the pathologically vicious letter- writer "Proud White Christian Woman"; and Emanuel Nene, the black man of unshakeable good cheer and faith. Like a medieval morality play, which relied heavily on unchanging dramatis personae because the central message was considered more important, Paton's novel is peopled with characters whose familiar outlines underscore the intent of the book. Yet Paton gives them a life of their own; they are not just puppets to be manipulated at will.

Acts passed by parliament are in Paton's hands no longer dry promulgations but the agents of crisis for his characters. An Afrikaner intellectual commits suicide after he is caught with a black shop assistant in violation of the Immorality Act; an idealistic young couple, the Indian girl Prem and the white Hugh Mainwaring, must choose between renouncing their love for each other or marrying abroad, condemned to permanent exile. The climate engendered by these laws is also reflected in the career of a prominent judge, blighted because he participated in the "Washing of the Feet Service" at a black church; and the reluctant departure for Australia of the liberal Mansfield family, leaving because threats and violent incidents lead to a nervous breakdown in one of their children.

It would be an easy indictment of apartheid merely to relate such incidents, but Paton also shows the understandable fears that caused people to support the system, to avoid political participation or to keep silent. He once said in a speech:

"There is one thing that has I believe so far made my writing acceptable, and that is that I have not mocked at or sneered at or laughed about man's fears. I believe that one may write at such a level that men look at themselves sorrowfully instead of looking at the writer vengefully."

By balancing these fears against the suffering, and interspersing his story with accounts of individual acts of courage and kindness, he has given a more accurate and affecting picture of South Africa at that period than a more sensational piece written in hot outrage could do. It is to Paton's enormous credit, both as a man and as a writer, that he has always been scrupulously fair, and this book reflects it. He writes, as George Orwell once said of someone else, about what people do feel, not what theyought to feel.

There is no central character in the book. Perhaps because he was too intimately involved in those years, Paton seems to have found it difficult to choose one particular man or woman to define the events. This is a considerable weakness. Nor is the book's structure entirely satisfactory. The scenes are short and change with bewildering rapidity, and keeping track of his characters is not always easy. But perhaps in the end it is South Africa itself, the beautiful land, the entity for whose sake all this anguish and these fears, the debate and the persecution is endured, which is the central character.

It is, however, the land and not the landscape that dominates. Cry, the Beloved Countrywas distinguished by a lyrical poignancy and an ecstatic love for the land. Writing in his seventies, Paton is no less aware of the beauty, but perhaps because he is impatient to get the story down, landscapes are given short shrift. It is a pity.

In Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful Paton celebrates those who chose to oppose the onslaught of apartheid and pities those whose fears kept them silent or on the other side of the historic conflict. If Carlyle was right in believing that history is the essence of innumerable biographies, then Alan Paton may have come closer to conveying the essence of South African history than anyone else.