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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Whistler


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To purchase The Whistler

Title: The Whistler
Author: Ondjaki
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 102 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: The Whistler - US
The Whistler - UK
The Whistler - Canada
Il fischiatore - Italia
  • Portuguese title: O Assobiador
  • Translated by Richard Bartlett

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Our Assessment:

B : lyrical fantasy, though some of the effect is presumably lost in translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Whistler is the story of a stranger's brief stay in town, from his arrival to his departure. It's a quiet little village, but it has its own church, and that's what he heads for first. His talent -- and it's a great talent -- is whistling, and he soon impresses the local wildlife, the Padre, and then pretty much everyone in town. And the small village church, he finds, turns out to be: "one of the best places in the world for the whistling of melodies".
       He's not the only stranger in town: there's also Dissoxi, "a girl who came from no one knows where" (though she's established herself here now), and KeMunuMunu, the Travelling Salesman. They, and the reader, find that, as the Padre explains:

Here they believe things have their own way of happening ...
       It's a small, local fantasy that's spun out here, an overlap of lives on both the sleepy, mundane everyday level and -- now, with the Whistler her -- the extraordinary. Dreams, deaths, a wild sexual frenzy: these aren't normal days in the village, and yet much is just like a sort of magical overlay over the ordinary. And so, for example, one of the days begins:
The sun had not yet appeared and already the trees were savouring its first timid rays, already the saplings resonated a salutary and morning shout. In the distance, unhurried, a clock marked with its rhythm the rhythm of everyone. KaLua was leaning against a tree, having a shit. 'This is what I call a beautiful morning !'
       Ondjaki has a nice touch with the small, personal details, as his descriptions are purposefully vague -- the Whistler, in particular, remains a shadowy figure -- yet evocative, making for a very rich cast of characters. Describing how KeMunuMunu came to be a Travelling Salesman -- pursuing first his dream ("I am going to be the locomotive itself !") before realising what he's really meant to be -- or Dona Rebenta's final resting place (the bed in which she's also carried to church for one last service) , the book is suffused with a generous warmth. Even when a sexual frenzy sweeps town, Ondjaki has a deft, light (and often humorous: "The chicken was not so lucky") touch.
       If anything, the story is threatened only by getting swamped by all the poetic license. It's part of the appeal of the story: Ondjaki tells a relatively simple tale and tells it -- with a few twists and loops -- relatively straightforwardly, but there are many flourishes and occasional circumlocutions that drip with excess. And these are all the more noticeable in translation.
       There are few sections -- especially of description -- where there isn't something at least slightly jarring:
     The waters of the lake had been transformed into a dangerous sea of sheets of vermilion, in that which was a moving experience for anyone who lived it: the sun, on colliding with the fourteen million little waves served up by the wind, dissipated its shine, giving to each aquatic slope an aura particular and sharp, dazzling and glittering, smooth and flawless.
     It was evident, to eyes and hearts, that the world coloured like that distilled images in brutal simplicity -- to tenderness.
       Occasionally it comes across as pure affectation; when there is more dialogue (or action) Ondjaki is on more solid ground, the fanciful expression better grounded by the real.
       It feels like there is considerable effort behind The Whistler, from a narrative that is pared down (quite effectively) to its essence to the epigraphs at the head of each of the very short chapters. Quotes come from writers that include Tchinguiz Aitmatov, Pepetela, Henri Michaux, Hölderlin, Clarice Lispector, Jorge Luis Borges, and Cervantes -- a heady mix to burden any book with.
       Vivid, lyrical, charming, The Whistler has undeniable appeal. But it also feels overwrought, and where Ondjaki is clearly pushing the Portuguese to its fullest the English translation must resort to less convincing language-play. There is certainly enough here to suggest considerable talent at work behind it, and even as this story is occasionally frustrating it's still an appealing and, in places, wondrous read. It has the feel of a young author at work, brimming over with ideas and experimenting with language, packing in as much as he can (mercifully all into barely a hundred pages) but it has a solid enough foundation that one can reasonably expect much more from him in future works.

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The Whistler: Reviews: Ondjaki: Other books by Ondjaki under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Angolan author Ondjaki was born in 1977.

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© 2008-2014 the complete review

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