Us and them

Natalie Moore is a writer based in Cambridge, Mass.

PAULA NANGLE’S debut novel, “The Leper Compound,” is a beautiful and complex work. Set during the final years of the Second Chimurenga -- the guerrilla uprising that ended white-minority rule in Rhodesia in 1979 and gave rise to modern Zimbabwe -- it is about much more than just the war.

Indeed, the conflict occurs out of sight, the spit and crackle of violence leaping from the surface of the narrative before falling from view. This is, of course, Nangle’s intention, reflecting the willful denial of white Rhodesians, as well as her protagonist’s dreamlike disconnection from the world.

We meet Colleen, the daughter of a white farmer, as a child in the feverish throes of malaria. Her mother has already succumbed, and her father marvels at Colleen’s survival. “ ‘You weren’t even there,’ he would say. ‘Mostly you were gone, you didn’t even see me. I thought you were dead.’ ” Indeed, the early pages of the novel hum with a hallucinogenic quality, of visions flickering in corners, at a distance from the world outside.


Colleen becomes obsessed with the illness of Miss Maenga, a black teacher from a nearby village who has cancer. Tended by the same nurse, Colleen imagines that their illnesses are related. After Miss Maenga’s death, Colleen spends afternoons by her grave, feeling that what she’s doing is somehow wrong. She is “violating something, being there, a thief continuing to steal what was African, parts of Africa, and make it hers. Understanding was only a new way to mark territory.”

Colleen quickly learns she has little in common with the Africans around her, even those she considers friends. When she attempts to speak inclusively to the nurse, using the pronoun “us,” she is quietly but firmly corrected.

As Colleen gets older, she becomes adept at sidestepping such issues. Her first lover is in the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, but he shares nothing of this with Colleen. Nor, in turn, does she seek information about his struggle against white rule. Eventually, she relocates to South Africa to study.

Nangle underscores both the passage of time and Colleen’s indifference to momentous political and social change with a single sentence: “ ‘Zimbabwe’ doesn’t exactly roll off my tongue yet.” Here we have her first acknowledgment that Rhodesia no longer exists. As it does throughout the novel, “history” takes place in the wings.

There is no resolution in “The Leper Compound,” no moment of self-realization for Colleen, no reconciliation with her past, her lost homeland or the Africa of the present or future. It is a ruthlessly honest study of an individual -- a decent person -- who hears, but does not hear, who sees, but does not see, in order to get by.