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A whale of a love story

Published January 22, 2006


By Zakes Mda

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23, 230 pp

Reviewed by JOHN FREEMAN

Love affairs get complicated when they cross the species line, even in the land of make-believe. How, for example, should a writer convey a woman cuddling up to an ape? Danish novelist Peter Hoeg gave it a try in The Woman and the Ape, and the result was a strange and bizarre piece of fiction, right up to the moment that the two lovers consummated their passion.

In his new novel, The Whale Caller, South African-born novelist Zakes Mda taps into the occult themes of a man in love with a female creature from the deep, but he manages to keep the proceedings on the right side of an R rating. The result is a humorous but mournful novel that tells the story of an innocent man in a beautiful, though fallen, world.

The novel takes place in the Western Cape resort town of Hermanus, a prime whale-watching spot that has pinned its postapartheid hopes on tourism. The novel's hero is a whale caller, a man with a kelp horn who has been calling out to sea since long before bands of wealthy travelers began hiring out his compatriots to do the same.

In prose so delightful one savors it, Mda slowly brings the town to life, describing the whale caller's daily confession rituals and the plangent way he circles back to the shore in hopes of catching a glimpse of one particular whale, whom he has dubbed Sharisha.

Painting fablelike images on a backdrop of natural splendor, Mda sketches a romance of unusual dimensions. The whale caller dresses in a tuxedo to welcome Sharisha when she comes into the bay to breach. He frets with jealousy when a group of male whales have their way with his beloved. "They have done it!" he cries. "They have ravaged Sharisha!"

Eventually, the whale caller (as he is called throughout) meets a female who walks on two legs and gives in to her civilizing ways - even if she is the town drunk. She even begins to chip away at his not-so-secret love: "You and that ugly fish!" she cries out. "I hope it goes away . . . forever! Maybe we'll have some peace when it's gone."

Unlike Hoeg, who wrote his novel in realistic tones, Mda fills in the margins of this story with mystical elements. When not ducking out to drink, the whale caller's paramour visits a run-down mansion where twins live. She tells them stories and they in turns play tricks on her. Another boy hangs around the beach, yearning to be an opera singer.

All of this signifies a world in the midst of transformation, the outside universe rushing in and putting normal relationships - and dreams - into a colorful jumble. Perhaps Mda, who has been in exile for three decades now, hasn't the curbside knowledge of life in South Africa to paint this passage realistically.

In the end, The Whale Caller shows how little anxious specificity counts for when it comes to storytelling. There are things we need not see to understand - like love - and there are others we can see, but do not understand - like a nation's tumultuous change. In trusting his reader to appreciate this paradox, Mda has written a fable of uncommon grace.

- John Freeman lives in New York.

[Last modified January 21, 2006, 10:26:03]

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