Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda








Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com






I’m still scratching my head after reading Zakes Mda’s new novel, The Whale Caller. The prose is captivating, the people are unusual, and the emotions bubble over the top on many pages. On one level, this is a story of an unlikely love-triangle. The unnamed whale caller plays love songs on a kelp horn to the whale he loves and has named Sharisha. The town drunk of Hermanus, a town on the west coast of South Africa, Saluni, loves the whale caller. On another level, this is a story about passions, and the fragility of life. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 89-95:



The whales have been gone for many months, and the taverns of Hermanus miss their love child. She has been gone for almost as long as the whales. Many ru­mours circulate, ranging from the mundane to the sublime. She stowed away in an oil tanker. She was seen at the Cape Town docks drinking with a bunch of Mediterranean seafaring types who took a fancy to her and persuaded her to sail the world with them, smuggling crude to third-world countries with black-market economies. She is hibernating with a new rash after the Bored Twins placed ten hairy millipedes in her bra—five in each cup. Others saw her in conference with a bevy of watermaids— beautiful women with lower bodies of fish—in the deep of the night. She has joined them in their undersea queendom. She is in the process of metamorphosing into a watermaid.

These stories change every day, like the story of her own con­ception: one day she is seen riding on the back of a dolphin which swims with her to the horizon, and the next day she has joined a cloister of nuns and has taken the vow of chastity, or has been dis­covered by a talent scout and now she sings the blues on a cruise liner.

There are those who know a different truth. They are the very few who have found reason to venture to the beaches, to Walker Bay and the Old Harbour—areas often shunned by the true-blooded citizens of Hermanus as being too touristy. They have seen Saluni, they claim, waltzing in the morning with a strange man who blows a kelp horn for the whales. No, not Wilson Salukazana the whale crier from Zwelihle, who is employed by the town council to alert whale watchers as to the presence and loca­tion of whales. Everyone knows the whale crier. He has been seen in newspapers and on television. Everyone in the world who has a camera has photographed him. The whale man seen with Saluni is a different one, the bald brawny silver-bearded man in blue dun­garees or black tie who does not relish an audience when he blows his horn, but merely tolerates it because there is nothing he can do about it. The one who calls whales to himself and spends the nights dancing with them. Saluni is often seen with him. Loiter­ing on the beach like the strandlopers of old. Strolling down su­permarket aisles. Smiling broadly. Sometimes even holding hands! Yes, the very Saluni that they thought they knew so well! The love child.

But the habitués of the taverns do not want to believe these rumour-mongers. Their story is pooh-poohed as the most ridicu­lous ever invented in the Western Cape and beyond. If Saluni were anywhere near Hermanus, they argue, she would not have deserted her eternal greatest haunts—the taverns of Hermanus. A lady who prides herself on elegance—however threadbare and old-time it may be—cannot become a strandloper. There is more romance in joining a noviciate or a band of smugglers, in belting out the blues on passenger ships, in riding dolphins and in trans­forming into hallowed water beings.

Saluni has indeed transformed into a watermaid of sorts. Her body has not turned into that of a fish, but on sunny days she spends many hours with her feet immersed in the emerald green shallows. Even on a day like this where everything is just a mass of greyness and one can’t tell where the sea ends and the sky begins, she sits on a rock playing with the water and making monotonous splashes with her feet. When days are grey, water also assumes dull colours. Not blue. Not emerald green. Misty purple. Oily brown. Or just grey like the day. The Whale Caller sits on the green bench above and watches her as he used to watch the whales. He can only see her back. The wild wind blows her red hair in wild directions, making it look like the hissing serpents of Medusa. But he knows that from the front her face will not turn every living thing beholding it into stone. It is a ravishing face, though the elements and the wine have taken their toll on it.

He is alarmed at the intensity of his feeling for her, so violent that it wants to burst out of his chest. It has never happened like this before; even with the buxom women in the hamlets he passed through when he used to travel the coast. Those were his happy-go-lucky days. He indulged his youthful fancies and moved on. Sometimes he lingered for a few months or even years when the ambience was convivial enough. But ultimately he moved on be­cause no strong attachments were ever established in his adven­tures and misadventures with the female folk. This feeling that is actually making him physically ill is a new experience, and in spite of its debilitating effect it illumines his face. His whole body feels light as if he is levitating, though he is actually sitting firmly on the bench.

Saluni is very much aware of his physical illness. She shares a similar malaise, with slight variations, though she sometimes doubts if his is directly related to her. She believes that it is likely to be caused by someone—or rather something—else. Her doubts worsen whenever he sits on that bench and has a faraway look in his eyes. She suspects that on those occasions his mind is popu­lated by images of Sharisha lobtailing and doing all sorts of crude things in the ocean. Although the name of Sharisha has not fea­tured in their conversation for many months, she silently bears a grudge against her. She blames her for the sad fact that she and the Whale Caller have not consummated their union.

Her thoughts are on this lack of consummation as she with­draws from the water to sit on the moist sand a short distance away. Drawing deeply from her historical memory, she chants spells from the binding rituals of those wonderful pagan epochs. She commands through binding hymns that her beloved should be subject to her will and act according to her wishes. With sand she builds an effigy of her beloved, in the manner that the lovesick moulded such effigies in old Egypt and Greece—a male pursuit in those ancient cultures—and still mould them in the enchanting voodoo rituals of some Africans. In her sequinned handbag, which is lying on the sand next to the stilettos, she finds a matchbox. She uses the matchsticks to pierce the sandman in the arms and the legs and the heart, chanting the binding hymn that the be­loved will come to her running, burning with desire, and she will drag him by his beard and even by his genitals, until he surren­ders himself completely to her. She tortures the sandman with her “needles” until the Whale Caller feels the pain where he is sit­ting, and has seizures. He does not know the immediate source of this further violence on his body, except for the fact that the mere sight of Saluni has been giving him feverish outbursts lately.

Although the fever has caused him great discomfort in the general area of his groin, he would like to believe that it has noth­ing to do with carnal desires. His position since his return from his wanderings and the discovery of the pleasures that can be de­rived from whales is that there are things that are more beautiful and less messy than copulation. The most important is just being at the same place at the same time with the object of your affec­tions, breathing the same air and smelling the same smells. Doing little things for each other rather than to each other. He loves doing little things for Saluni although she never seems to notice them. He does all the giving and she is a thankless receiver. He re­joices in generosity and has stopped being puzzled at her lack of any expression of gratitude.

Once there was an outburst about it. He had returned quite late from collecting his monthly pension because of the long queues at the mobile pay point since such payments are all made only one day of the month. Thousands of old-age pensioners and disabled people had been queuing for hours, especially those, like the Whale Caller, who do not have bank accounts to which the money is directly transferred by the state. He had been standing in the queue all day long, and could not even dash away for lunch lest he lost his place. He was very hungry and was looking for­ward to a nice hot meal when he got back to the Wendy house. But Saluni had not cooked any food. She was just sitting on the bed filing and painting her nails.

“You did not cook? Why?” asked the Whale Caller.

“I was not hungry,” she responded.

“You go to the Bored Twins and when you come back there is a meal waiting for you.”

“What have the Bored Twins got to do with it, man? What are you on about?”

“Whenever you come back there is food waiting for you, Saluni. Did you think I cooked it because I was hungry?”

“Don’t get so worked up about it, man. It’s only food.”

“If I cooked only when I am hungry there would be no meals in this house.”

The Whale Caller sulked as he brought water to the boil on the hot plate. It was no big deal to cook macaroni and then to sprinkle grated Gouda on it while it was hot. It took less than fif­teen minutes. But it was the principle of it all that he was con­cerned with, and he was infuriated by the fact that Saluni didn’t seem bothered at all. She tried to introduce some small talk about their next window-shopping expedition, but he did not respond.

“Oh, I see,” said Saluni, “you want a woman who will cook for you? You didn’t bring me here to be your maid, did you?”

“I didn’t bring you here at all. You brought yourself.”

“But I am not your servant.”

“I am not your servant either, but I do cook for you. Did you think I was doing it because I was your servant?”

“So now you are nitpicking, are you?”

“I look after you because I care, not because I am your servant. I expect the caring to be mutual.”

Saluni only laughed. He vowed to himself never to raise the matter of Saluni’s selfishness again. Now he has learnt to live with it. It is how Saluni has been created. She means no harm by it. She just has never known how to look out for the next person. He watches her with pride as she chants her binding spells. He can’t hear what she is saying. He thinks she has invented a new childish game.

The grey sky darkens, and Saluni stamps on her sandman, chanting more binding spells. His body convulses, which he tries hard to hide though his face is mapped with pain. Mercifully the pain evaporates as soon as she stops the manic dance. In Saluni’s fit of unfulfilled erotomania the flattened effigy has joined the other grains of white sand that will become sand castles in a few months’ time when the winter rains have stopped and the warmth of summer has returned. She grabs her stilettos and handbag, and walks up to the bench.

“It looks like rain,” she says.

“It smells like rain,” he says.

“Perhaps we should go home.”

“You might have to carry me on your back,” he says. “My whole body feels sick.”

“I know.”

“How do you know?”

“Somehow we make each other sick. But don’t worry, you will get over it.”

“I don’t want to get over it. It is a beautiful sickness.” They slowly walk back to the Wendy house.


Like it or not, The Whale Caller may be the most unusual book you’ll read this year. The fascinating characters are certainly memorable.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2006



Buy The Whale Caller @ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2006 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to The Big Book Shelf: All Reviews





*    2006 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2006 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Whale Caller.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com