A man, a woman and a whale enact an eerie love triangle in this dreamlike fifth novel from the South African author of The Madonna of Excelsior (2004).
In the resort town of Hermanus, on South Africa’s western coast, tourists come to whale-watch, and the otherwise unnamed title character scorns them, keeping watch for the seasonal visits of the female right whale, which he names Sharisha and serenades with his homemade kelp horn. The whale caller is a 60ish pensioner who lives on macaroni and cheese and has no interests beyond his Sharisha—to the intense annoyance of female “village drunk” Saluni, who sets her cap for him, moves in with him and tries to civilize him, but never breaks through his primordial closeness to the sea creature that seemingly responds to his adoration (making sinuous “dancelike” movements, to the sound of his horn). One suspects allegorical contrasts among the primitive simplicity of immemorial Africa that the whale caller appears to embody, the emergent—and urgent—demand for entitlement and inclusion represented by Saluni’s hunger for attention and love, and perhaps a hint of the Dark Continent’s dark future in the jaded behavior of “angelic” twin girls, on whom Saluni fiercely dotes, and whose willful misbehavior masks strong undercurrents of sadism and violence. Its principal human characters’ comic bickering (perhaps a shade too reminiscent of Athol Fugard’s celebrated play Boesman and Lena) adds welcome dimension, as do the whale caller’s confessional importunings to Mr. Yodd, an unseen being who lives in a grotto and functions as a peculiarly unresponsive local Delphic Oracle. And Mda brings all to a smashing climax as a “freak wave” irreparably alters both the face of Hermanus and the heart of the whale caller’s intense oneness with the world beyond the town.
A beguiling amalgam of realistic fiction, religious parable, animal fable and moral argument. Mda goes from strength to strength.