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Ondjaki: O Assobiador (The Whistler)

There are a slew of novels on this site which have as their theme the idea of an outsider arriving into a small, often remote community, and completely changing it with his/her presence. Examples include Ivan Vladislavic‘s The Folly, Hilary Mantel‘s Fludd, Ali Smith‘s The Accidental and Simone de Beauvoir‘s L’invitée (She Came to Stay), though the best-known is a film: Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s film Teorema (Theorem). This is another one.

The novel is set in a sleepy Angolan town, where the only major event is the donkey festival where, apparently, the donkeys select a fellow donkey, generally the best of their species, to be knocked out. It is not only sleepy. Despite the fact that there are a lot of old people in the town, they rarely seem to die. The gravedigger, KoTimbalo, a widower with three daughters, spends his time patiently waiting (and sleeping) at the cemetery for someone to die, all too often in vain.

One October day a young man arrived with the enduring and silent rains. He was wet so he went into the church and, as there was no-one there, he started whistling. The pigeons – there were many of them – listened, as did the Padre. The music…recreated a new universe within the parish and all the hearts that were witness to it – padre, pigeons, swallows, the world! – were clothed in a new carnivalesque colouring: a celebration from within.

For the people that heard it, it was a voice from another world… a type of sacred music, the most pure Latin of the angels. Not everyone had heard it and some of those that had not heard it but had heard about it were suspicious. A man whistling in the church was not appropriate. Doña Mama and KoTimbalo talk about it. Such lack of respect, says KoTimbalo.

However, the Padre is impressed. He even gives the young man a place to stay and the job of tidying up the church as sole rental payment. Worse still, as far as his parishioners are concerned, he closes the church – which is normally always open and has a daily mass – saying it will not reopen till Sunday.

Another outsider arrives – KeMunuMunu, the travelling salesman, who is a regular visitor and a jewel of a person, according to the Padre. He too is impressed. Indeed, once they hear the whistling, all are impressed and many change. Dissoxi, a girl who came from no-one knows where, reconnects with the sea. I wrote to God; I asked Him for peace, she says. Others have similar changes in their outlook, all beautifully described by Ondjaki.

And what is this whistling? The melody arrived, fresh, clear, perturbing, tearful, levitated, in a sonorous awakening perfection that revealed, more than anything else, a deep understanding oif the labial rules of whistling, the positioning of the tongue and the tone resulting from that, the secret manner of not letting the mouth dry out, the lips, the tiniest orifice from where, gently rising, that magic of another world was created.

But everyone is waiting for Sunday, the day the church reopens. Doña Rebenta, who has already been given the last rites twice but told death that she is not ready for her (death is a woman in her eyes) plans to be there, as does everyone else. There’s something magical about this, KoTimbalo comments.

Ondjaki gives us a beautiful, poetical fable about how life can be changed by the arrival of somebody different, someone who can pull the small town out of its usual torpor and show them a new and different way of looking at things and hearing things. It is not just the humans. The pigeons and the donkeys are entranced as well. As KoTimbalo commented, there’s something magical about this book.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by Caminho
First English translation in 2008 by Aflame Books