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The sheltering sky

At a boys' school in remote Namibia, a former guerrilla and an American volunteer find a kind of refuge

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
By Peter Orner
Little, Brown, 309 pp., $23.95

It's common enough in the panting world of the literary blurb to encounter a book that purports to ''cast a spell." Peter Orner's debut novel, ''The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo," is that rare genuine article. It is a book of astonishing beauty, a sustained reverie that captures the reader on the first page and does not release its grip.The author of the acclaimed collection ''Esther Stories," Orner sets his tale in Goas, a primary school marooned in the middle of the Namibian desert.

The title character, a beautiful former guerrilla, arrives at Goas with her cantankerous toddler and immediately becomes an object of rabid desire among the lonely male teaching staff. The pursuit of this mysterious siren makes for a good deal of sweaty mirth.

But Orner is after bigger game here. His central aim is to immerse us in the lazy rhythms and compressed desires of this remote community. The book is properly understood as a series of meditations, brief, lyric chapters that celebrate the small moments in which life resides.

His cast includes a hilariously pompous headmaster, a kleptomaniacal female hermit, and a bemused volunteer teacher from Cincinnati named Larry Kaplanski.

Kaplanski is the primary narrator, but Orner allows all his characters to speak, and they do so with eloquence. Here, for instance, is the head teacher, Obadiah, a man whose brilliance is matched only by his weakness for alcohol.

''Here the sun beats and beats, and the plants, perhaps, come to expect it. Every day the homicidal sun. Your autumn, I've read about it, seems much like a sudden, wrenching death. Or do I misunderstand it from the leaf's point of view?"

In his courtly declarations we hear the anguish of a man who knows his intellectual gifts are being squandered.

This is the essence of Goas. Most of the teachers feel like outcasts, and their restless colloquies become a kind of improvised absurdist theater.

For the students, on the other hand, Goas represents an oasis. In a violent, impoverished country, the school offers the greatest luxury of all: the innocence of childhood prolonged.

''No one wants to think about what will happen to Jeremiah Puleni when he finally finishes Standard Seven and there's no primary school left for him," Kaplanski observes. ''We know he's doomed, and for this we all love him more."

Orner uses historical letters and epigrams to sketch the unlikely history of Goas, one that encompasses the cruelties of imperialism. But his touch is light. He is more interested in the tender, confused interactions between, for instance, the region's last Boer vegetable farmer and the schoolchildren of Goas.

''Prinsloo sighs and cackles and takes his cucumber out of his mouth and spits and shows his golden teeth and then yanks out a box of small carrots and starts tossing carrots in the air. The boys leap for the carrots. . . . Not because they're hungry, but because they're free and this is a game they still enjoy."

Any white Westerner who writes about Africa, of course, runs the risk of colonizing the place all over again. But Orner is an author of tremendous faith, and humility. His subject is not Africa, but a small corner of the place, where the old human truths prevail: boredom, gossip, the burning desire to be known. He is blessedly unswayed by the glib distractions of plot.

This is not to say that things don't happen at Goas. One day, for instance, a former student -- now a famous general -- shows up to deliver a speech.

''He hopped over and snatched up the principal's bullhorn and shrieked: 'What's hard is loving! That's why I say to you, children of Namibia, saplings of a newly watered nation, I love you. You think a big man, a comrade such as myself, doesn't say such a thing. Well, I say it! ' "

More shocking than this pronouncement is what happens next. The general pays a visit to Antoinette, Obadiah's pacifistic wife and the school's most severe presence.

''We were too far away to hear any of it," Kaplanski recalls, ''but after speaking to her through the fence for five minutes, the general knelt down and kissed the ground. Then we watched her reach and lug him up by the armpits. Antoinette was a giant compared to that little general. Then . . . she clutched his head and kissed him. Hard and long and slobbery. It was not the kiss of a hag. She talked about it for days."

Orner is incapable of dishonoring his characters. He treats all of them -- even the minor figures -- with a fierce humanity. He has the sharp eye and soft heart of a poet. It is as if he has distilled the experiences of his characters down to their essence. At the same time, he writes with tremendous restraint. The emotion of his prose resides in its vivid associations. Here is how he captures a trip into town for the funeral of a former teacher:

''The women wore black dresses they looked too comfortable in, as if death were a uniform waiting in the closet. . . . The dead man was sticking out of the trunk of his Volvo. The road to the cemetery was strewn with withered lettuce."

As a work of African provenance, ''The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" will take its place alongside Saul Bellow's ''Henderson the Rain King" and Graham Greene's ''The Heart of the Matter."

But it is a book unlike any I have ever read, a miraculous feat of empathy that manages to unearth -- in the unlikeliest of spots -- the infinite possibilities of the human heart.

With this staggering debut novel, Orner has joined the first rank of American writers.

I can't wait to read what he will produce next.

Steve Almond is the author of the story collections ''The Evil B. B. Chow" and ''My Life in Heavy Metal." See ''Bookings," Page E6, for information on a local appearance by Peter Orner.

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