One thing is clear after reading Zakes Mda’s bizarre yet captivating novel The Whale Caller: some people just take their love of animals too far.
Take, for example, the title character in this, Mda’s fifth novel. The Whale Caller (the only name the character is known by) lives in seclusion in the small South African town of Hermanus. His obsession is a whale whom he
has named Sharisha. He calls to her with a kelp horn, dresses in formal wear to meet her, and is thrown into fits of despair when she disappears.
His eccentricities mark him as a loner, but he manages to draw the attention of another lost soul: the town drunk, Saluni. She becomes as infatuated with him as he is with Sharisha. In his loneliness, the Whale Caller isn’t totally immune to her charms, but Saluni is taken aback when she realizes that the Whale Caller’s heart is divided between herself and a whale. That is understandable. Competing with a human woman is one thing. But competing with a whale? That’s a bit trickier.
This is, in a nutshell, the plot of Mda’s novel but, of course, it goes deeper than that. The Whale Caller goes to the heart of why we love, obsess over, and betray one another (including members of the animal kingdom). It
is a beautiful, lyrical, heartbreaking book reminiscent in many ways of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Both books feature animals as major characters, and both have a fascination with the mystical. They also both have compelling, quirky characters and a painstaking attention to detail.
I especially liked how Saluni’s greatest insult to the Whale Caller was to refer to Sharisha as a fish. She’s a mammal, he counters indignantly. Of course, defending his mistress enflames his human mate even more. Both
of their reactions feel authentic, given the circumstances, and build to the book’s concluding tragedies.
Yes, it is tragic (how it could it not be?) but it is also moving and great fun to read. The Whale Caller’s love of Sharisha may cause pain, but it never fails to fascinate.