Wilbur Smith's "The Burning Shore" may be the best novel of the year. Unfortunately, it's the year 1917, not the year 1985.

Beginning in the First World War and ending with the establishment some years thereafter of a great South African family fortune, "The Burning Shore" is as vigorous as it is simplistic. Full of tragedy, it utterly lacks a tragic sensibility. Rather it has been professionally engineered into a slick piece of commercial storytelling by a Rhodesian who now lives in South Africa and has made himself a tidy amount of quid writing boys' books for grown-up boys.

"The Burning Shore" is primarily an exercise in spectacle. Whenever Smith, best known for "Hungry as the Sea" and "The Delta Decision," cannot figure out what to do next, he does something big. He throws in some sort of catastrophe -- a shipwreck, a plane crash, a big Boche breakthrough, a man-eating lion and, when all else fails, Robert Redford:

"His hair was golden, hanging to his bare shoulders, streaked white by the sun, yet as lustrous as raw silk, offering a startling contrast to his deeply tanned features. These might have been as beautiful as those of a comely girl, but all softness had been burned by the flames of life's furnace, and like forged iron, the marks of the anvil had been left upon them."

Smith's description of Lothar De La Rey, guerrilla warrior, mining engineer, lover to and eventual betrayer of the heroine Centaine de Thiry, is all too typical of the book. It has no characters, only paragons. These are the sort of people who somehow demand to be described in high-blown words that begin with capital letters. Centaine, for example, is Headstrong, Tempestuous, Courageous and Bold. Her first love, Michael, an aviator, is Brave, Foolish, Noble and Doomed. Her second, De La Rey, besides being Blond, is Bitter, Disillusioned, Heroic and Guilty.

Unfortunately, nobody is ever merely Real: These characters are painted in such broad primary colors that they fail utterly to engage except at the mechanical level, as Smith arbitrarily pushes them through one plot spasm after another.

The book begins on a showily evoked Western Front, in the dark year 1917, where Michael Courtney, a South African aristocrat with the requisite ossified upper lip, is flying the Dawn Patrol, slugging down brandy and cursing the Gods of War while nevertheless, in the best old-boy tradition, carrying on. Smith doesn't seem to realize that Michael is terribly boring -- a cliche' as big as the Ritz. Nor does he realize that he himself writes of battle not nearly as well as he imagines. You can feel his sentimental love for the old canvas-and-wire warbirds and his boyish fascination with the sheer hubbub of dogfighting undercutting and subverting his bleak vision of death in the air.

But Michael is really a false start; he has left the book by Page 109, when he arrives, in a preposterous stroke, at his wedding in a tattered SE5a, leaking blood, flames and noblesse oblige all over the French countryside. What he leaves behind is his betrothed, the beautiful French teen-ager Centaine -- whom he had met in an earlier, nonfatal crash -- and in her loins the illicit seed of his son.

Centaine thus inherits the lead role in "The Burning Shore," which is a surprise but not quite a disappointment. She is no less trite than Michael, but a good deal more picturesque: "She had the face of a pixie with huge Celtic eyes," Smith tells us, and then he tells us about her posterior for quite some time. Unfortunately, Smith has imagined her in such completely cartoonish terms that she scarcely seems human at all. She has about her an air of adolescent silliness that never quite leaves the story: a pregnant world-class beauty who can ride like the wind, swim like a carp, fight like a lion.

Her estate gobbled in the same German offensive that has killed her lover and her father, she sets off for a new life in South Africa with her love child. Alas, the Germans aren't quite through with her: A sub puts a torpedo into the belly of her ship, and she manages to make it to what must be the burning shore itself, the edge of Africa.

At this point, "The Burning Shore" radically changes character. When bedraggled Centaine is picked up by H'ani and O'wa, an ancient bush couple on the way to what they call the Place of All Life deep in the Kalahari, we seem to have wandered into another story. H'ani and O'wa seem clones of Xi in "The Gods Must Be Crazy" -- that is, they are bogusly sentimentalized little E.T.'s whose innocence and nobility are far too pristine to be believable. Still, Smith writes best about South Africa, and his sense of the harsh but beautiful landscape and of the complex relationship between the various tribes of man are arguably the best elements in the book. It is a shame that they are undermined by so much romantic claptrap.