NEW YORK -- J.M. Coetzee writes fiction, but his slender stories bear the awful freight of human events. As this solemn, careful man speaks, more in University English than Afrikaner English, so does he write, mentally piecing through the compulsions of his native South Africa, assigning them values: freedom, charity, order, heroism, shame, destiny. It's as though Tolstoy had chosen to write in parable.

Coetzee needs to traffic in such universalities if he's to reach most people in the West, onlookers and worse to the central struggles of the age. The United States of America has been a distant and unmentioned place in the landscapes of Coetzee's South African novels; in the newest one, "Age of Iron," it plays an unstated but necessary role in the author's choreography of themes.

Coetzee's sixth novel is narrated by an aging white South African, Elizabeth Curren, and addressed to her daughter, who has escaped to a new life in the suburban United States. "Age of Iron" is Mrs. Curren's eerie diary of decay -- her own, her country's -- but it has a message for the West.

"There are some extraordinarily cruel moments in the book, considered as a letter," Coetzee begins. For many minutes to come, as he speaks, his eyes will hover in thought above the empty tabletop before him. "And I suppose the cruelest moment is the one which is directed, toward the end of the book, at the daughter's two children, who are Mrs. Curren's grandchildren."

What she writes to her daughter, when she sees a snapshot of her grandsons in a canoe, is this: "... it dispirits me that your children will never drown. All those lakes, all that water: a land of lakes and rivers: yet if by some mischance they ever tip out of their canoe, they will bob safely in the water, supported by their bright orange wings. ... Even I, who live on shores where the waters swallow grown men, where life expectancy declines every year, am having a death without illumination. What can these two underprivileged boys paddling about in their recreation area hope for? They will die at seventy-five or eighty-five as stupid as they were born."

This is a contrary thought -- "underprivileged" by virtue of a deadening luxury -- and it works the other way too: Curren, and possibly Coetzee, feel a kind of privilege in these saddest of circumstances that beset their country. The West these days is not immune to that feeling; the theaters of revolution in China and Eastern and Central Europe and the Third World can inspire in outsiders an uneasy longing for engagement.

With reason, Coetzee would suggest.

"There's a certain controversy, isn't there, going on right at the moment in the United States about the 'end of history'?" Coetzee says, his goatee lifted in inquiry. "I'm sorry, I forget the names of the people involved. The position, expressed in a very crude way, is that the Western democracies have reached a stage in historical development in which development ceases because there is no stage beyond it. For better or worse liberal democracy is the form toward which all history tends... ."

Coetzee (pronounced "coot-SEE-a") doesn't so much as arch an eyebrow in contempt; he lets flat words do the job. He goes on. "That very way of seeing the history of mankind is a symptom of the First World ... moving to a plateau of inconsequentiality or irrelevance. It's actually the Third World where history, real history, is happening. And the First World has played itself out of the game."

Some would say this is a perverse way of making a virtue of necessity: Hatred, violence and social upheaval may be bad things, but at least they're what's happening, history-wise, whether you're on the losing side or the winning. And Coetzee, as a white South African of Afrikaner descent, doesn't imagine his people are on the winning side. "Age of Iron," in fact, is an exploration of what it means to be a heroic member of the doomed oppressor class.

No one is more self-searching, more noble in her aspirations and more knowing of her weaknesses than Elizabeth Curren. Dying of a slow cancer, she takes in a tramp -- his race is never specified -- a drunk she finds curled up in a urine-soaked cardboard box in her side alley. She fights against police injustices done to young and not entirely blameless black teenagers, and harbors them too in her white lady's empty house. She witnesses riot and shooting in a township, and nearly immolates herself on a Cape Town street in protest.

But in Coetzee's book her instincts are no match for her implicit crime: her race and class. "Age of Iron," like "Waiting for the Barbarians," "In the Heart of the Country" and "Life & Times of Michael K," Coetzee's 1983 Booker Prize winner, is about the constraints to goodness, the (near?) impossibility of surmounting the givens of birth and human intercourse.

Charity and gratitude, for instance, come up often in Coetzee's pages. The author, a Cape Town University professor of literature, is willing to comment, but first sets the rules. "If I'm going to talk about charity let me talk about what she says about charity. What I say about charity is somewhat distinct" -- distinct, yet never returned to.

Mrs. Curren, says her creator, wants "to do something for this tramp who's appeared on her doorstep and {she is} encountering ... what she thinks of as a lack of gratitude. The point that she's making to herself is that charity is actually a reciprocal act. The tramp has closed himself off from recognizing any genuine impulse of the heart behind the practical expressions of charity on her part."

Coetzee draws the parallel. "That is the situation that prevails all over South African society. No matter how much people like herself ... want to do for other people, that charity no longer works. It's no longer a transforming act at the level of personal relations. It doesn't meet with gratitude. In fact, it meets with a certain level of cynicism."

Coetzee finds in this the ultimate expression of the colonial predicament at home. "Until the colonial subject is free to say 'I want that' or 'I don't want that from you,' the colonist is not in a position to say 'This is what I would like to give you.' Acts of charity are possible only between equal, free, consenting parties. Charity doesn't work otherwise."

Taken as a truth about the trend of events in his country, this would seem a gloomy outlook. But it is hard to say just how gloomy citizen Coetzee really is. He notes with some brightness that "a lot of {white} people who left in the last few decades are actually considering coming back ... the people who left because they couldn't tolerate circumstances there." Today, he says, "for the first time, really, there seems to be a potential for establishing a society that isn't based on the kind of injustice they can't live with."

An optimistic view.

"I think it's an extremely optimistic view, and that's why I think more of them are mulling it over than are actually buying air tickets. It's optimistic, but it's not unrealistic. I think there is a potential for a complete turnaround in the history of South Africa. There is the potential."

Coetzee, his voice as steady as a metronome, writes an equally unwavering prose. His books are efficient conveyances; "Age of Iron," at 198 pages, is his longest. There is a reason for this.

"I took a degree in mathematics" at the University of Cape Town, says Coetzee, "and went into computers at the beginning of the 1960s." He worked first for IBM, and then for International Computers, a British company. "I spent all my time writing systems programs," he says.

"There's a premium on condensation. It was quite reasonable to expect that a systems programmer would produce at the end of the day's labor maybe five lines of code. Five lines of instructions which would be very ingenious in their ways of saving space and saving time. And this was at a very impressionable age in my life, my early twenties."

(He is 50 now. Married? "I am divorced." Children? "One daughter, 22.")

Writing his few lines of code every day "got me habituated to the notion that you could spend endless time revising and cutting down, which is the way I work as a writer."

Code it may still be, but does he still write just five lines a day? He says he doesn't know. Then he picks up a copy of "Age of Iron" lying on the table, flips through its pages. "Two hundred pages, 30 lines a page, that's ..." A long 12 seconds goes by while the former mathematician does the multiplication. "... 6,000 lines in three years. That's something like five or six lines a day, I guess."

He has been writing books since the 1960s, living and teaching in Cape Town with occasional teaching forays to the United States -- last year, for a semester at the Johns Hopkins University's writing program. In South Africa, and increasingly elsewhere, Coetzee's books have been celebrated alongside Nadine Gordimer's. The author is also editor, with Andre Brink, of "A Land Apart," a recent anthology of writing by white and black South Africans, and author of "White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa."

Coetzee is not by a long shot a fiery sort, deeply held though his feelings manifestly are in the pages of his novels. In his only comment about his students in Cape Town, white and black, he says, "They would prefer me to be a more direct writer, to address the situation in a more direct way." They have the wrong man. Coetzee is a worrier, not a pontificator.

Yet he worries about the big things. Heroism, for example. "What times these are," exclaims Mrs. Curren, "when to be a good person is not enough!"

Coetzee says: "I think it's actually a wall in front of her, and a wall in front of those black kids who get killed: They can't imagine a form of heroism that doesn't involve killing yourself or killing other people. Yet they have this overpowering sense that just working away at things is not going to bring about their salvation, if I dare use that word. Something on the scale of heroism is actually called for."

This thought of walls returns to him.

"I don't think I would have written the book if it hadn't been a wall in front of me. If I knew the answer ... it would be unnecessary to go into the sort of exploration that writing a novel represents."

It's ultimately an exploration of the self, then.

"Yes," Coetzee replies, "because ultimately novels are written by people sitting in rooms by themselves. There is ultimately nothing that you can explore in a room by yourself but yourself."