BUST TO DUST: Tsotsi, by Athol Fugard (Random House, $8.95)

Athol Fugard's first and only novel is about the same thing most of the great South African writer's plays are about: how the poor and downtrodden are continually, inexorably beaten down to the earth. His works are often about the earth. Boesman ludicrously lords his male superiority over Lena who loves him, even as they crouch in a crude lean-to on the Swartkops mudflats. A Lesson from Aloes, which recently ended a much-too-brief run on Broadway, takes its title from a plant that thrives in the hard dry dirt of South Africa's Eastern Cape. And on the last page of Tsotsi, the title character is literally "flattened into the dust."

People called him tsotsi ("hoodlum"), so he took that as his name. He is very young, black of course, and the decision-maker for a small gang that subsists by daily committing some vicious crime, usually but not always for the money. They don't think much about it, they just do it. Tsotsi tries not to think about anything and therefore has no memories. The gang falls apart when Boston, who can't help thinking, asks one question too many and Tsotsi nearly kicks him to death. "Tsotsi tolerated no questions from another. It wasn't just that he was caught without answers. It went deeper than that. Those questions sounded the vast depths of his darkness, making it a tangible reality. To know nothing about yourself is to be constantly in danger of nothingness, those voids of non-being over which a man walks the tightrope of his life. Tsotsi feared nothingness. He fear it because he believed in it. Even more than that, he knew with all the certainty of his being that behind the facade of life lurked nothing."

Then one day, alone, he ambushes a woman who unexpectedly thrusts into his arms a shoebox containing a squalling infant. He could destroy it instantly, but he doesn't, and so to keep it alive he must think. "Tsotsi had always thought about life as a straight line...There had only been the present, that one continuous moment carrying him forward without questions or regrets on his part. Now, it seemed, he was wrong. One day had shaken the whole basis of his life."

Into that one day Fugard crams the despair, rage and numbness of life in a Soweto slum, allowing the oppression of the white minority governors to go as realistically unstated as Tsotsi's need to kill (or love). Well, almost unstated. He describes a Bantu eating house: "It was a cheerless room, and reflected the poverty of a people who measured their essentials and excesses in the smallest unit of the white man's money." The kitchen boy who painted food prices on the door left out the penny sign beside each numeral. "He didn't think it necessary."

The novel's scenario is as bleak and streamlined as one of Beckett's, yet its language is still rich and beautiful. Folksinger Tony Bird, like Fugard a white South African, once wrote a gorgeous song extolling the wildlife and landscape of his countryside, yet his song ends, "With my mind so tormented in her province I wandered/While beauty and pain mocked my stride/For to feel so much freedom where no freedom exists/Was too much in the Cape of Flowers." Beauty and pain mock Fugard's stride constantly, yet he continues to trace the impossible hopes and inevitable destruction of his black and colored countrymen. Tsotsi is an estimable contribution to his catalogue, and we should be grateful to the two students who found the novel (completed in 1961) among Fugard's papers and inspired its publication.

Soho News, February 25, 1981