THE WHALE CALLER
By Zakes Mda
Farrar Straus Giroux. 230 pp. $23
Zakes Mda's fifth novel, The Whale Caller, is an oddball love story, wonderfully timeless and familiar: Boy meets whale, boy loses whale, boy meets wino lovechild with missing front teeth. . . . Quixotic and doomed, Mda's charming romantic leads are obsessed with the unattainables of life. The leading man, a misanthropic whale-watcher in the tourist-ridden village of Hermanus, on the west coast of South Africa, is so infatuated with the southern right whale he's named Sharisha that his entire lifestyle, livelihood and identity are based on his adoration of her. Tuxedoed like a suitor, keeping vigil on a rocky spit, he dances and blows a horn to lure her closer. His intentions are purely to adore her -- un-Ahab-like, the Whale Caller wields neither harpoon nor malice, only his heart. Tourists occasionally toss him coins for the spectacle he presents, but it's clear he would continue this ritual with no remuneration. He is a man enthralled by a whale.
To his annoyance, he has also enticed Saluni, a baffling, sour-smelling, dentally deficient -- though nonetheless beautiful and enchanting -- barfly who trails him wherever he goes, watching him as he watches the whale. When she develops a bad rash and stays away for days, he grows curious and eventually anxious. He begins to miss her stalking and finally searches the town for her, marking the beginning of many volleys of pursuit and counter-pursuit. When he locates Saluni, she's busy with a new affliction, picking lice off herself in the surf, and their love affair begins when he takes her home and administers sheep dip. Yes, delousing is their first date, and her attempts at detoxing and casting a voodoo love spell on him constitute their prolonged courtship. But once she has him, she develops an uncontrollable jealousy: "You must dream about me, man, willy-nilly!" Winning her man isn't enough for Saluni. Tragically, she goes on to demand his full attention. "I am not going to be part of any triangle," she says. "The fish must go."
On the one hand, The Whale Caller is a sweetly thoughtful fable about a simple love triangle between a rigid and ritualized man, a captivating town drunk and a spectacular whale. But as a satirical structure, it also serves to lampoon all the banalities, constraints and tribulations of standard romantic love. There are, in this cross-species affair of the heart, outbursts of jealousy, bitterness, desire and squabbling to outdo even Jerry Springer:
" 'I say leave him alone, you foolish fish,' she shouts. 'He is mine!' She turns her back to the whales. The level of water is just below her knees. She lifts up her wet dress and lowers her underpants to the knees. She moons Sharisha, slapping her bottom and screaming, 'Take that, you lousy fish!' And then she pulls up her underpants and walks away, leaving the poor whale looking scandalised."
Love, in all its varieties, appears here as equal parts euphoria and pain. When the Whale Caller and Saluni finally manage a physical relationship -- his initial impotence is caused by his inability to stop thinking of the whale -- Mda writes of a "sickness" these wobbly lovers feel. But this isn't some tropical disease. This is love. At one point, Saluni frets because "there is no anguish. True love is supposed to be accompanied by profound pain."
And it is, so be prepared: Despite the lighthearted and often hilarious antics, this love triangle, like so many others, is tragically unsustainable. Perhaps this is where The Whale Caller defies expectation: If it is a morality play, these are unusually funny, richly developed characters. If it is a quirky, romantic comedy, it's dispensed with a heaping helping of human frailty, tragic behavior and self-destruction. 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. *
Steve Amick is the author of the novel "The Lake, the River & the Other Lake."