The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda

Songs in the sea of solitude
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In the little town of Hermanus, in South Africa's Western Cape, lives a Whale Caller. Subsisting on a diet of macaroni and cheese and living off his meagre government pension, his is a materially and emotionally frugal life. Its only moments of passionate intensity are when the whales come to the ocean during the months of the late southern winter and early spring.

His whole life revolves around their seasonal arrival. He has cultivated a special relationship with one he names Sharisha. When she arrives, he spends the season with her, playing his horn, to which she responds with her own songs and dances. Sometimes he teaches her new songs and rhythms, to which they both dance in a charged love duet of man and whale. His relationship with Sharisha is personal, special and - well - monogamous.

Then Saluni, the village drunk, a woman also living in her own world of art and fabrication, enters his life. In their own way, each is a lonesome soul in the social landscape. But they are also a study in contrasts. Saluni's love for alcohol is superseded only by her love of music, especially the songs of the two children - the Bored Twins - to whom she is drawn and becomes inseparably attached. She is as feisty as he is reserved, her unabashed hedonism a deep contrast to his ascetic lifestyle.

Though different, their attraction is almost predestined by their common loneliness and the mouldy smell - reminiscent of his dead mother - which she exudes in spite of her perfumes. And soon, between whale, woman and man, a love triangle of rivalry and jealous possessiveness develops to complicate his life.

The Whale Caller is a novel of love and art. It unfolds in the simple, elliptical outlines of a ballad, even coming to an end in the manner of the tragic ballad. But behind this simplicity lies a carefully woven texture of symbolism that borders on the allegorical.

In novel after novel, Zakes Mda seems to have cultivated a mode of writing in which historical events and verifiable people are used as springboard to evoke an enchanted world in which the realistic and the magical co-exist with unruffled ease. In this novel, the real-life whale crier, Wilson Salukazi, is not only named and acknowledged; he is also a character. The descriptions of the tourist season in Hermanus and the antics of the whale watchers are also recognisable. Here, though, the heavy dose of realism ends or - more appropriately - mutates into the magical.

In this, his fifth novel, we are thrust once again into Zakes Mda territory - the little closed community that is paradoxically open to the pressures of the outside world, the delightfully eccentric small-town characters, who live in a bubble of stories and art, the close connections between nature and the human community. We enter into a world where art, nature and life are so entwined that life imitates nature and vice versa. Image and metaphor take on a material existence and the everyday life of events and relationships becomes metaphorical. Between whale and man, there is undoubtedly a relationship that can be figured as real - the response to the horn and the performances, for instance. But, for Mda, these only serve as points of departure for the fantastic as reality and image fuse in unusual ways.

The Whale Caller revisits themes and scenes from his previous novels. Here, however, the handling of the material is more assured, the writing more focused and there is a better integration of various elements into the plot. In spite of the ambition of his award-winning novel The Heart of Redness, this novel is - in my opinion - his finest artistic achievement yet.

Harry Garuba is professor of English at the University of Cape Town