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on 31 July 2016
A very moving story.
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on 31 January 2006
For many people whale watching has a special attraction. For some the infatuation may even reach the height of passion and love. This is the subject of Mda's appealing novel about a man, a whale and a woman - in that order. The narrative flows and ebbs like the ocean tides and the playful jumps and splashes of the animals. At times it evokes playfulness, harmony and music of whale and kelp horn. At others it reflects the tense dramas, discords and human foibles that weigh down on the main characters. It's a bitter-sweet, humorous and sad love story, set against the backdrop of post-Apartheid South Africa.

The tale is set in and around the "whale capital of the world". Hermanus is an attractive fishing town close to the most southern point of Africa. Mda admits that he usually starts his novels with a particular locale, then he creates its characters. He is not concerned with the plot "because it works itself out from who the characters are and what their physical, social and political environments are", he said in a recent interview. Whale Caller is a beautiful example of his skill of storytelling. You don't need to "google" Hermanus to learn about its splendours. Mda evokes the place and its surroundings with great detail and vibrancy.
Mda's style creates intimacy with the subjects. You follow the Whale Caller to his favourite spot, away from the whale watching crowds, where he spends his time observing the games of the whales. You share his increasing anxiety for the seasonal appearance of that one particular whale, a Southern Right, Sharisha. After a life of travels up and down the coast, the Whale Caller has settled here. His life centres around his daily communication with Sharisha throughout the season. He calls her with a special kelp horn, home-made and refined over time. She responds by jumping high into to the air and crashing back into the water whenever he calls. Her calls and his special tunes are music to their respective ears. Saluni, the village drunk, has been stalking him, intent on attracting his attention. Over time, their lives become interwoven and change forever.
The South African reality, with its social and economic tensions, is sometimes alluded to yet without overwhelming the delicate and intimate story of Sharisha, Saluni and the Whale Caller. While Mda's narrative is rooted in the reality of the place and its inhabitants, whether fish or people, the magic realm has its place as well. There is Mr. Yodd, who from his grotto at the water's edge listens and laughs at the confessions of the Whale Caller and there are the Bored Twins whose angelic voices betray their mischievous character. Are they real or imagined? The spiritual world of dreamtime and mythology is present, yet does not burden the light hearted and sometimes funny tone of the novel. A highly enjoyable read.
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After decades of wandering along the coasts of two Oceans, a sometime fisherman returns home. The remote South African town of Hermanuspietersfontein has phoenixed in his absence. It's now part of "The Whale Coast" and tourists flock here with cameras, video and tape recorders, dour expressions and money. The latter has brought vendors and craftspeople. The entire enterprise has cost the village the last four syllables of its name. The fisherman, who once caused a schism in his local church, is also enchanted by the whales. That attraction manifests itself as a compelling and spellbinding story - the creation of the Hermanus Penitent.
The Whale Caller, whose name we never learn, played a "kelp horn" so well for his church, that it split between those who adored his music and those who favoured tradition. He learns that the passing whales also have an ear for his music. One Southern Right in particular, who he dubs "Sharisha", is particularly responsive. Every season he waits for her return from the Southern Ocean [a third one!]. He will play the kelp horn for her and she will respond with her own cries and ecstatic maneuverings. They are a song and dance team.
When Sharisha fails to arrive, the Whale Caller is desolate. Has she been overrun by a ship, the propeller shredding her flesh? Have the Japanese whale fishers taken her for their sushi tables? He pines and grieves. With no means of learning what may have happened to Sharisha, the Whale Caller visits Mr Yodd to unload his troubles upon. Mr Yodd makes the Whale Caller feel he's overwrought and must find the patience to await Sharisha's return. Who is Mr Yodd and why does he live in a grotto at the edge of the community?
While the Whale Caller is learning to deal with his frustrations over Sharisha's absence, he becomes aware he's the object of someone's quest. Saluni, a "love child" who brooks no dispute with her elevated status, has set her sights on him. Although she normally frequents Hermanus' taverns, cadging drinks from the fishermen and other patrons, she has developed another quest. Hovering about as the Caller haunts the cliffs awaiting Sharisha, Saluni understands the whale is her competition. Plotting and scheming being a part of her nature, she wants the Whale Caller for herself. How do you compete with a whale, particularly one who dances and sings to the Caller's kelp horn music? Saluni's time is divided between pursuing the Whale Caller and the fascinating Bored Twins who's singing has captivated her as the Whale Caller's has Sharisha.
Mda's wide ranging experience and graceful prose has wrought a tale of endless interest. The tale verges on the new genre of "magical realism", but retains a firm hold on reality. There is fantasy, of course, but that lies mainly in the minds of the protagonists. The people are valid characters. If they do unusual things or act in bizarre ways, that's due to who they are, not because Mda wants to transport us to an illusory world. Take up this book secure in the knowledge you will enjoy a captivating read. It's a faraway place, but the journey is worth the time. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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