South African Schoeman makes his American debut with a novel of high purpose--one that movingly explores that other country that for his ailing hero is both Africa and death. As stately as a Bach fugue, the novel tells the story of Versluis, a wealthy Dutchman who travels to South Africa in the 1870's in search of a cure for his tuberculosis. The long journey from the coast to Bloemfontein--then capital of the Boer republic of the Orange Free State, and noted for its healthy climate--almost kills him, but he gradually recovers over the summer. The townspeople, a cosmopolitan mix, are solicitous, but Versluis- -affected by a lonely childhood and fears of dying--rebuffs their friendship and withdraws into himself and his illness. Nonetheless, Versluis is compelled on occasion to join local society: He dines with the hospitable Hirschs, a family that exudes vitality; reads poems for a German literary society; and finds himself increasingly drawn to Pastor Scheffler and his crippled sister. The town is surrounded by empty veld--symbolic here of the emptiness of death, and of Africa itself. It's an alien place, the Pastor suggests, for Europeans torn between two worlds who, unasked, ``brought civilization and dumped it as if Africa were some kind of trash- heap''--a place ``we see only at a distance, beyond the lace- curtains.'' Scheffler's sister, born in Africa, feels no such dichotomy; for her, Europeans must become Africans. Winter comes, and Versluis realizes he is dying, but he's strangely comforted by an encounter with a fellow-countryman. On a hill overlooking the veld, Versluis can finally embrace the emptiness without fear: ``The emptiness absorbed you, the unfamiliar land grew familiar-- the journey had been completed.'' One of those quietly powerful and beautifully written books that wrestles with all the great questions without ever slighting the ordinary men and women who ask them. A distinguished debut.