The Whale Caller A Novel

Zakes Mda




Trade Paperback

240 Pages


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The Whale Caller, Zakes Mda's fifth novel, is a haunting love story set in seaside village of Hermanus during the tumult of post-apartheid South Africa. As the novel opens, the seaside village of Hermanus, on the country's west coast, is overrun with whale watchers—foreign tourists wearing floral shirts and toting expensive binoculars, determined to see whales in their natural habitat. But when the tourists have gone home, the Whale Caller lingers at the shoreline, wooing a whale he calls Sharisha with cries from a kelp horn. When Sharisha fails to appear for weeks on end, the Whale Caller frets like a jealous lover—oblivious to the fact that the town drunk, Saluni, a woman who wears a silk dress and red stiletto heels, is infatuated with him.

After much ado—which Mda relates with great relish—the two misfits fall in love. But each of them is ill equipped for romance, and their on-again, off-again relationship suggests something of the fitful nature of change in post-apartheid South Africa, where just living from one day to the next can be challenge enough.

Mda has spoken of the end of apartheid as a lifting of the South African novelist's burden to write on political subjects. With The Whale Caller, he has written a tender novel—the work of a virtuoso among international writers.


Praise for The Whale Caller

"Zakes Mda's fifth novel, The Whale Caller, is an oddball love story, wonderfully timeless and familiar . . . With an offhanded mastery of lyrical language, this gifted storyteller's prose shimmers without extravagance. As if awash in unremitting sun, The Whale Caller begins as a reverie, illuminating the beauty of imperfect love and the thrill of struggling to maintain it. Yet in the end, beyond the whimsy and whales, the deeper, darker concern here is not so much the fragility of love, but the fragility of life itself when one surrenders wholly to the foolish heart."—The Washington Post Book World

"A masterpiece of understatement, The Whale Caller is the real winner among this year's crop of South African fiction . . . One of the best novels of the year."—Donald Morrison, Time

"A tour de force . . . Not only does Mda make his premise work, but we genuinely are moved by the fates of his oddball trio—testament to his considerable gifts as a storyteller . . . He creates a world that operates according to the fluid logic of a dream."—The Baltimore Sun

"Long after you put this book down, you will be haunted by the two lovers and the beautiful, dancing whale who should never have come to town . . . Truly magical."—The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)

"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 . . . This novel is—in my opinion—his finest artistic achievement yet."—Harry Garuba, The Independent

"South African-born Mda's fifth novel is an unusual romance: a love triangle involving a man, a woman, and a whale. The titular protagonist leads a solitary life in Hermanus, South Africa, waiting for the incoming migration of whales, with whom he communicates via a kelp horn. He has an intense, almost sexual bond with a female named Sharisha. The town drunk, Saluni, takes a shine to the Whale Caller and insinuates herself into his life, nearly making him forget about Sharisha. Though this story takes place in the present, there's a mythical, folk tale-like quality to the storytelling. Saluni, one of the most memorable characters ever encountered in fiction, nearly takes over the novel, much as she takes over the Whale Caller's life. Funny, hypnotic, and heartbreaking, the novel works on many levels; it's both a meditation on the nature of love and a depiction of the changing face of South Africa. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"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. 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."—Kirkus Reviews

"Novelist, painter, and filmmaker Mda ponders the rules of attraction in this offbeat love story set in postapartheid South Africa. A man known only as the Whale Caller stands on the shores of the real-life village of Hermanus, blowing his kelp horn to woo a spirited female whale named Sharisha. There he catches the eye of Saluni, a fiery, red-haired recovering alcoholic obsessed with a pair of twin teenage girls whose angelic voices induce euphoria. The Whale Caller and Saluni form an uneasy romantic alliance, each envious of the other's obsessions. The Whale Caller wonders what Saluni sees in the singing twins (she hopes to collaborate with them on a demo CD, much to the chagrin of their mother, who believes such a recording will 'steal' their voices). Saluni is distressed by the Whale Caller's undying devotion to what she considers nothing more than 'an oversized fish.' This fifth offering from Mda delivers plenty of levity, but its apocalyptic ending—complete with a tsunami—reveals darkness beneath the light."—Allison Block, Booklist (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Zakes Mda

  • Zakes Mda has received every major South African prize for his work, which includes The Heart of Redness, Ways of Dying, and She Plays with the Darkness—all published in paperback by Picador. Born in 1948, he has been a visiting professor at Yale and the University of Vermont. Mda is now a dramaturg at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, and a professor in the Creative Writing Department at Ohio University.

  • Zakes Mda Sal Idriss
    Zakes Mda