The Whistler by Ondjaki

I have read several books recently that felt like a bit of a chore, so the first point to make about The Whistler is that it is gloriously short. With the help of generous amounts of white space the publishers have padded it out to 100 pages, but it’s probably more like 60 pages of actual text. I’m not a fan of short stories and I’m usually suspicious of very short novels, but this time I was in the mood for it: how nice to get a book finished in a couple of short sittings.

It’s about a man with an extraordinary whistle; except actually the whistler himself hardly appears. It’s really the story of a village reacting to the whistler’s arrival; and his whistling has a remarkable effect on people. We’re in magical realism territory here.

The story is light on plot but strong on atmosphere; it’s dreamy and wistful and gently funny. I guess in the end it might be a tiny bit insubstantial, but I found it very likeable. And it’s nice to read African fiction which isn’t about civil war or dictatorship or colonialism, important though those subjects are, but instead about people’s normal desires and concerns on a human scale.

He arrived in October, at the same time as the enduring and silent rains of that village. His hair fell along the thin sides of his face, his clothes were completely soaked and heavy, his eyes barely open from such amazement: it was a rain as soaking as any other, but without the natural gift of making a noise as it fell. He believed he was in the midst of an intense snow storm, and opened his mouth. He had never experienced a rain like this.

He put his bag on the steps. He looked, still with that soaked gaze, at the pigeons that surrounded the church. They flapped around him, alighted n the windows and took to the air again. It was only them that made a noise; only their noise could be heard. Further in the distance was a donkeys’ retreat. It is true, gathered donkeys: grey, fat, content and ambling.

He went into the church with a small step, without making a noise. The day was still young and the first mass had already taken place. He breathed the air around him, felt a delicate religiousness penetrate his lungs and his heart. The beauty of the architecture, the light filtering through the stained-glass windows, the morning and the moment, the absence of the Padre, led him to begin whistling. He discovered, with the end of the first notes, that this was one of the best places in the world for the whistling of melodies.

The Whistler by Ondjaki (trans. Richard Bartlett) is my book from Angola for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is © Jose and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. It has no particular relevance except that it was taken in Angola and I like it.

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