HEART OF THE HUNTER

By Deon Meyer

Translated from the Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers

Little, Brown. 374 pp. $23.95

Deon Meyer is a white South African whose two previous novels have won praise and prizes in Europe but have not been published in this country. He now makes an impressive American debut with "Heart of the Hunter," which skillfully combines an epic adventure tale with a tough-minded spy story.

The heart of the novel -- its hero in every sense -- is a giant African: Thobela Mpayipheli. Thobela is a warrior, a prince of the Xhosa tribe, a clergyman's son who, at 17, was recruited by the African National Congress to join the struggle against apartheid. His size, his strength and his skills with a knife or a gun were such that, sent to East Germany for training, he was kept there as a KGB assassin. In the novel's opening scene, set in 1984, Thobela killed a CIA agent on the streets of Paris. He came to be ashamed of this work -- he saw himself as a warrior, not an assassin -- but he followed orders because of his dedication to the Struggle, as it is always called. When black majority rule was finally achieved, Thobela was overlooked, given no job, and angrily went to work as a strong-arm man for a drug lord. Finally, fed up with that, he found love with a good woman and her young son, took a job as a handyman and is 40 years old and living a quiet life when the main action of the novel begins.

He is called upon to rescue an old comrade in the Struggle, one Johnny Kleintjes, who will be killed if a computer disc containing top-secret information is not delivered to a distant city within 72 hours. But phones have been tapped, and police attempt to arrest Thobela at the airport. He evades them, steals a powerful BMW R 1150 GS motorcycle and sets out on his journey with the South African security forces in furious pursuit. This epic journey -- hundreds of miles long, virtually Homeric in its challenges -- works because the Thobela we come to know is not the killer of yesteryear but a gentle man who hates to leave his family, yet cannot say no to a comrade from the Struggle.

Thobela's journey alternates with scenes within the shadowy Presidential Intelligence Unit that is trying to capture him and recover the disc. Needless to say, his decency is in sharp contrast to the duplicity of the spy world. As Meyer tells it, after black-majority rule was achieved in 1994, the new government tried to create a unified intelligence service that included the resources of the outgoing white government. The result was a caldron of hostility -- white against black, communist against anti-communist and various black factions against one another. The missing disc is believed to contain secrets about murder and betrayal that could destroy many careers. It may also reveal the identity of the long-rumored mole within South African intelligence who is reporting to the CIA.

We meet Janina Mentz, a veteran of the Struggle who is directing the pursuit of Thobela. She has his lover, Miriam, held for questioning, a decision that leads to tragedy. Janina, a single mother, is bitter about the sexism and racism she confronts in government. One black bureaucrat, resisting her orders, insults her in terms worthy of Dick Cheney on a Senate visit. Novelist Meyer is a former newspaper reporter, and another of his sharply drawn characters is a young woman reporter, Allison Healy, who is covering the police search for the elusive black biker, which becomes a media sensation.

Even as we begin to suspect the mole's identity, the novel's focus always returns to Thobela's ordeal. A commando team is pursuing him by helicopter, determined to kill him, and he is equally determined to complete his mission without killing anyone.

His efforts are superhuman, yet we eventually learn that this hero is being used by one spy faction against another. But Meyer makes clear that, even as a dupe, Thobela is a better man than the schemers who bedevil him.

Near the end of this well-written, well-translated novel, there are amazing passages as he speeds along the highway, sorely wounded, feverish, hallucinating: "Between the trees and grass he saw three giraffes moving like wraiths against the sun, cantering stately as if to escort him on his journey, heads dipping to the rhythm in his head. And then he was floating alongside them, one of them, and he felt a freedom, an exuberance, and then he was rising higher and looking down on the three magnificent animals thundering on; he surged up higher and turned south and caught the wind in his wings, and it sang."

"Heart of the Hunter" is most obviously a rip-roaring adventure, a portrait of spy-world duplicity and a look at South Africa's post-apartheid politics. But this thriller is also an ambitious attempt to create a mythic hero. Thobela works admirably as a character, but ultimately he is a symbol of all that is strong and long-suffering in Africa and Africans. Meyer is trying to show us the soul of a continent, and to a considerable degree he succeeds.