BOOK REVIEW / The sad story of a giant in love with a nymph: The first life of Adamastor - Andre Brink: Secker & Warburg, pounds 7.99

ACCORDING to 16th-century legend, Adamastor began as a Titan and ended up as the Cape of Good Hope. Naturally, Europeans planted their mythical beings on distant soil, just as they projected them on to the stars. But what if there were more to it than that? What if, as Andre Brink asks in his new novel, the tale was also inspired by an indigenous prototype, a native Adamastor?

The crux of the original legend was Adamastor's love for the nymph Thetis, which enabled her mother to trick him cruelly and spite his passion. According to the Portuguese poet Camoens, author of the verses that serve as Brink's point of departure,

this was a love that would not have been requitable anyway. Camoens takes the view, oddly literal for a recounter of myths, that giants and nymphs are incompatible on grounds of size. Brink's focus is tighter. It is the size of a particular part, he

suggests, that matters.

This imaginative bound takes him into the decidedly unclassical world of folklore and the belief that the black man has a prodigious member and an irresistible desire for white women. This is fertile territory for a liberal novelist with a sly senseof humour.

Adamastor's first incarnation is T'kama, leader of a group of Khoikhoin people, whom the Europeans dubbed 'Hottentots'. His name means 'Big-Bird', which has the same double sense as the modern English 'big cock'. One day a pair of sailing ships approaches the coast where T'kama's group is camped. The group interprets these unprecedented apparitions, which seem to come from 'the nesting-place of the sun', as sea-fowl, which carry brown eggs beneath their wings.

True to the prime directive of anthropology, the men who hatch from these eggs waste no time in establishing an exchange of women with T'kama's people. The seed of the tragedy is that the 'beard-men' have a perfidious notion of exchange. Their idea is to offer beads and the usual explorers' tat, lubricate the deal with fire-water, and make off into the bushes with their new acquisitions, having first shaken a few drops of Christian baptism over them. When a white woman hatches from one of the eggs, transfixing T'kama with desire, he fails to realise that the arrangement is not reciprocal.

The consequences are predictably disastrous. T'kama is nothing if not a gentleman, as his studiously proper narrative style emphasises, so he politely raises his apron to show the visitors the bird straining for the sky that proves his intentions are honourable. Although he escapes with his life, others on both sides do not, and his people leave the coast for a terrible journey through the wilderness.

This being a prehistoric time, the land is dominated by supernatural forces which persecute T'kama's people. Giants don't actually walk the earth, but his ever-increasing desire for the woman afflicts T'kama with runaway gigantism, making consummation ever more unattainable. The storyline's natural affiliates are limericks, cartoons and a well-known picture that used to circulate - and probably still does - purporting to show an African with a penis long enough to have a knot in it.

The tale's brilliance lies in the way it maintains its dignity. The theme of the absurdity of the phallus could have been rendered as a series of farcical interludes; but the narration is much more subtle. All its emotional levels are expressed in parallel, absurdity coexisting with an ardently lyrical account of a love that grows to be magnificent. It unpicks and then reinvents a heroic narrative in a form that suits a knowing, fractured, world-weary age. The First Life of Adamastor is a pocket classic.

Its tragic dimension is set against a comic impulse and two forceful assertions about human relations; first, that love will grow in the most arid soils, and second, that interbreeding is its equally irresistible accompaniment. The scientists agree,

finding that 7 per cent of white South African genes are a local heritage. Adamastor underscores the fundamental truth that right from the beginning, agonisingly, Africans and Europeans were both together and apart.