Throughout her career, the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer has wanted to explore the terrain where personal interests, desires and ambitions encounter (and, not rarely, contend with) the demands and trials of a politically active life. She has had a keen eye for the exceedingly precarious moral situation of her own kind - the privileged white intelligentsia that abhors apartheid, detests the exploitation of 25 million unfranchised, economically vulnerable citizens at the hands of five million people who, so far, have had a powerful modern army at their disposal, not to mention the wealth of a vigorous, advanced capitalist society.
To oppose the assumptions and everyday reality of a particular world, yet be among the men and women who enjoy its benefits - those accorded to the substantial upper bourgeoisie of, say, Johannesburg and Cape Town - is at the very least to know and live uneasily, maybe at times shamefacedly, with irony as a central aspect of one's introspective world. At what point is one's thoroughly comfortable, highly rewarded life as it is lived from year to year the issue - no matter the hoped-for extenuation that goes with a progressive voting record, an espousal of liberal pieties? Put differently, when ought one to break decisively with a social and political order, put on the line one's way of living (one's job, the welfare of one's family)?
In past novels, notably ''Burger's Daughter,'' Ms. Gordimer has asked such questions relentlessly of her own kind and, by extension, of all those readers who share her color and status in other countries less dramatically split and conflicted. Now, in ''My Son's Story,'' a bold, unnerving tour de force, she offers a story centered around the other side of both the racial line and the railroad tracks - yet the dilemmas that confront her characters are at heart very much like those that plague affluent whites, insofar as they allow themselves to oppose the entrenched authority of the South African Government: how to measure up in one's daily, personal life to one's avowed ethical and political principles, one's activist sentiments and commitments.
The father who figures as the central character in this ''son's story'' is Sonny, a once obscure, humble schoolteacher whose political radicalization and prominence have been achieved at the start of the novel, which is told by the traditional, anonymous narrative voice of the author and by another, equally significant interpretive voice, that of Sonny's son, Will. Right off, the major psychological themes of disenchantment and betrayal are struck. The adolescent Will, telling a lie (''I would say I was going to work with a friend at a friend's house, and then I'd slip off to a cinema''), encounters his father in that very movie theater living a lie - there with a white woman, his lover. This is contemporary urban, cosmopolitan South Africa - movies desegregated, interracial sex no longer outlawed, but the heart of apartheid (its economic and...