THE OPENING QUESTION : RUNNING TO MAPUTO <i> By Albie Sachs (HarperCollins: $19.95; 215 pp.) </i>


Lying in a Mozambican hospital and learning that he has lost an arm and an eye in a bomb attack that crumpled his car, African National Congress lawyer Albie Sachs is overcome by a feeling of profound elation. The feeling turns out to be neither ephemeral nor drug-induced: “Running to Maputo” is an unflinchingly loving and affirmative book, enticingly mysterious for the way it seems to draw strength from such an act of malice.

Sachs reasons that the attack resolved all of his old conflicts among love, work and the struggle to end apartheid, leaving his world “totally without paradox or dilemma.” More precisely, however, the bomb seems to have been a kind of sacrament, legitimizing Sachs’ place in a movement in which, as a white, he undoubtedly felt marginalized.

In contrast to Rian Malan, who explicitly focused on white South Africans torn between their culture and their ideals in last year’s “My Traitor’s Heart,” Sachs downplays the conflict in the hope that it will disappear. When he reads of an ANC leader’s proposal to assassinate white South African civilians to prove that their government no longer can protect them, for instance, he reacts with none of the disillusionment we would expect from a bomb victim; he simply mentions to one of his black ANC colleagues that such a policy might undermine “the moral and political consciousness of the ANC fighters.”


Nevertheless, Sachs seems to realize that his own life--part of which is represented by a scene in which he and his girlfriend lounge naked in a London bathtub discussing postmodernism--is several steps removed from conflicts of the kind that are now rocking Johannesburg. Perhaps this is one reason why the praise lavished upon his “heroic” battle against apartheid fails to satisfy his “overwhelming and primitive need” to be reassured of his “worth as a person.”

Like many South African whites, Sachs enlisted in the cause as much for the romantic ideal it symbolized as to end apartheid. As he admits while reminiscing on his childhood, he had joined the movement because he doubted that “a date on a Saturday night and a box of sticky chocolates in a hot cinema was what life was about.” Searching for more, he met another crowd with ideas, music and late-night walks up a mountain to “argue about everything, even our arguments,” under the starry skies.