THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY

By Tony Eprile

Norton. 297 pp. $24.95

In ancient Greek myth, the relationship was clear: History was the daughter of Memory. In real life, though, Memory has often been the servant, or at least the co-dependent, of History and her cousin Politics. Memory is obliging, easily compromised, weak-kneed in circumstances that may begin with a cosmetic makeover and end in radical surgery.

Tony Eprile, a white South African writer now living in Vermont, has observed the way his countrymen have "recast their memories to fit in with a changing political climate." Early white settlers created a society based on the invisibility of black Africans; now, in the new South Africa, "that which was covered is being unearthed." South Africa's history is "slippery and disputed," but the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the 1990s collected accounts of the apartheid era, then widely disseminated and "seared [them] into the very soul of South Africans so no future generation can disbelieve in apartheid or the wars that have riven this land."

These are the historical premises of Eprile's first novel, The Persistence of Memory, which follows Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Stories, his critically acclaimed 1989 collection. Persistence is a richly imagined novel of growing up, its political revelations leavened by absurdist humor and social satire. Readers need not fear a political manifesto or a didactic experience: Like Candide, this novel records the natural shocks of a good-hearted youth as he learns the way of the world, but Persistence is no chilly fable. Even the cruelest or most ridiculous situations are tinged with the author's sympathy as he explores the absurdities of coming of age in a repressive society.

Eprile makes Paul Sweetbread his narrator and protagonist. As a South African Jew, Paul has an outsider's perspective, but his really remarkable, and dramatically useful, attribute is his perfect memory. At school in Johannesburg, Paul's teacher tells about Red Cross food packages sent to German refugees after World War II. "The problem was that the packages were labeled 'Gift,' and . . . in the German language, Gift means poison." Paul quickly realizes that this odd story identifies "the toxin lurking in his being": He, too, has a poison gift, his inability to fudge or forget.

The South African talent for historical revisionism is at work in Paul's own family. When he was a little boy, his father died in grotesque circumstances and possibly took his own life. Paul's mother has her own sanitized, retrofitted version of that event, but Paul's perfect memory cannot unremember such a trauma. Though psychotherapy provides some understanding, he fears that the therapist's aim is to practice "the national dysmnesia, the art of rose-colored recall."

But even in an insane society, adolescence must be got through. As a fat boy, Paul knew he was "the weak impala in the herd"; as a fat 19-year-old, he feels like a blob or "some lungfish that has crawled up onto land only to discover that the age of mammals is in full swing." The loneliness, apathy and despair of his student life land him in military service; he's sent to Southwest Africa during the secret war in Angola and Namibia. For the reader without much knowledge of African history, Eprile has provided an indispensable afterword to sort out the events and combatants, but the incidents of the novel make sense even without footnotes.

For Paul, being noticed by his commanding officer, Captain Lyddie, is another poison gift. Lyddie is "a perfect specimen of South African manhood. . . . He could have been the illustration for a reissue of Teddy Lester, Captain of Cricket, if Teddy Lester had grown up to become an efficient killer." Lyddie bullies Paul into witnessing his resourceful cruelty to an African child in a Himba village. Much worse, he implicates Paul in a maneuver that turns into a massacre. Thanks to Lyddie, Paul is burdened with events whose brutality -- like that of his father's death -- he cannot unremember.

After such knowledge, it would be some consolation if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could determine what really happened, but even a perfect memory can be discredited by a clever cross-examiner. For Paul, there's grim satisfaction in hearing Lyddie's self-defense dwindle into stock answers that have nothing to do with memory: "War is war. It is not a picnic. When elephants fight, the grass and trees suffer. He regrets any loss of life but his job was to defend his country and his people. 'We all believed in what we were doing,' he says pointedly." To Americans in the spring of 2004, this sorry vindication speaks all too plainly.

In the white South Africa that Paul knows but does not subscribe to, everybody's an expert on the character of black Africans. "Africans will eat their own weight in meat in ten days if left to themselves," one such white authority declares. Another asks Paul: "That's your African; no memory of yesterday and not a thought about tomorrow. . . . I suppose you think the African is your brother?" Yes; Paul suspects brotherhood and tests the hypothesis as opportunities arise. It's greatly appropriate that when he makes his peace with the dismaying events of his military service, he has the help of a cheerful lady witch doctor. She gives him the advice every white South African should hear: "You can't rely on the government to do things for you, my son. You have to make amends yourself."

The Persistence of Memory is a magnanimous introduction to a South Africa we haven't quite encountered before. It's not a long novel, but it's a big one. *

Frances Taliaferro is a writer in New York.