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Ondjaki was born in Luanda, Angola, in 1977. Author and poet, he also writes sceenplays and is an artist. He has published four novels as well as collections of peotry, short stories and a children's book.

The following is an extract from Whistler, as translated by Richard Bartlett.  Read a Review.
. Photo: Walter Craveiro/Link


 Padre and KeMunuMunu, Seated

The Whistler
(a review)

Time, it wastes itself entirely learning to watch the birds
and feels for them a clear and deep longing [...].
What a festive body I remember it having had, what
a place for kindness!
E. White, Poems of the Science of Flying and
the Engineering of Being a Bird

Padre was coming to sit very slowly at the other man's feet. KeMunuMunu was looking into the distance, so far away that Padre understood that he was not dealing with a place, but with a pleasant memory. He made no noise whatsoever. He sat down, he was coming to arrive with him, letting the smell carried by the Travelling Salesman penetrate him. He waited for him to awaken.

KeMunuMunu, when he perceived the presence of Padre, did not get a fright. It was curious, not to be frightened. He was a man trained in the empirical fields of life and he had gained all the qualities and vices of a true travelling salesman, as he had in reality been for so many years: he was likeable because that is the way he was; he had a spine that was bent by 33 degrees to the left due to the heavy suitcase that always accompanied him; he was quick to change his clothes, topics of conversation and types of discussion; he had a small stomach ulcer which, besides being a morning alarm clock, served equally as a means of advising him of imminent bad weather; he made use of a hat that was neither too tall nor too low, which fitted him like not even a glove could; he made friends with the same ease which he did not forget enemies; he never wore shirts with a white collar that would give away how many days he had been wearing it; and, at times, he forgot to take off his hat when he sat at table. Besides being tall, of swarthy complexion and with a face darkened by the sun and journeys, he knew the country's railway lines like the palm of his hand. 'A jewel of a person!' as Padre said.

KeMunuMunu calmly fixed his gaze on the vicar and smiled, confirming for Padre the fact that he had been absorbed in distant reminiscences.

"Friend KeMunuMunu ..." smiled Padre.

"Padre..." said in a relaxed tone, KeMunuMunu, the Travelling Salesman.

"Well then, how are you? You are looking very well..."

"It's the air here..." KeMunuMunu looked at the trees, the shadows, the donkeys grazing in the distance.

"How long are you staying this time?"

"A few days...Just a little few days..."

"The usual!"

"It is, it is the usual...It's my life... a few days here and the next already somewhere else..."

"And do you already have a place to stay?"

"No. I have just arrived. I've only had time to sit myself down..." sighed KeMunuMunu, from the heat.

"We could have lunch together then," Padre proposed.

"But where?" enquired KeMunuMunu.

"In the sacristy... There's lots of space and it's all been tidied up."

"Padre, don't take this the wrong way," said KeMunuMunu, "but nothing will tempt me to go inside. And if we went rather there under the baobab, hmm? Padre is an expert at picnics..."

"Okay, let's... But then don't moan about the flies!"

No, I promise not to moan about anything..." smiled KeMunuMunu, Padre went inside to fetch the food.

"Alea jacta est!" Padre's voice echoed inside he church.

Everything was ready. They laid out a cloth over the bench, sat side by side and opened a bottle of wine, which KeMunuMunu had been uncertain of offering. "A leftover from Lusitania!" he said.

KeMunuMunu, while eating, set to thinking: how was it possible that, with them having decided to sit under the baobab to have lunch, the flies disappeared, the people stopped looking at them, the wind began to blow gently and the sun softened! He looked into the distance and sought an understanding of such beauty: the plains gently rising and vast, the birds almost invisible, the donkeys beginning their siesta, the clouds indecisive in the sky – without a will to fly. And he also felt that Padre had something to say. He poured more wine into the two glasses, tasted it, gulped it.

"It is the Lord's third miracle!" commented KeMunuMunu. Padre smiled.

"What were the first two?"

"Well, does Padre, who is the vicar, not know?" he said softly.

"Perhaps I know..." said, also softly, Padre.

"The first was the bread!" picked up a piece of bread, put it in his mouth, KeMunuMunu. "And the second is the cheese! Oh Padre, these miracles are of great help to me on days of loneliness... Now that's not enough. It only comes at the time when people are looking for it..."

"What?" interrupted, seriously, Padre.

"The fourth miracle!" broke into a light guffaw, KeMunuMunu. At which Padre also smiled.

"Ah, KeMunuMunu, you're always taking the mickey! Okay..."

“ You have to be, Padre, you have to be…” he finished the last forkful, started rolling a cigarette, looked at Padre. “And here, anything new?”

“A little… a little…” looked into the distance, Padre.

“Really?” KeMunuMunu turned to him with more attention.

Padre quickly tidied up the lunch things, looked at the almost empty wine bottle with its remains, wrapped it up with that which he was still appreciating. Distractedly he picked up the bread crumbs left over from the meal and then swallowed them – everything embellished with his habitual slow motion. Almost closing his eyes, allowing his forehead to become a little more furrowed, he looked the other in the eyes.

“A man arrived a few days ago…” Padre began again.

“Oh yes? Who is he?”

“The Whistler is the name he goes by.”

“The Whistler!?” also furrowing his forehead, KeMunuMunu.

“Truly a Whistler. He arrived a few days ago, he had no place to stay and set himself up in the church. He is going to tidy things, odd jobs…”

“And why do you call him the Whistler?”

“Because he whistles!” Padre shot back, with a strange expression.

“Yes, but we can all whistle!” smiled KeMunuMunu, the Travelling Salesman.

“Not like him…!” said Padre. “Not like him…Besides which, not everybody attracts all the birds when they whistle…”

“Attracts the birds?!” asked KeMunuMunu. “Now I don’t understand anything…”

It was as if the moment was responding to Padre. Or rather, as if the Whistler was doing so.

Even for those who were on the square, in the shade, after a delicious lunch and the accompanying wine, even for those somewhat further from the church, or having a siesta, even for the donkeys braying in the distance, the whistle was a particular current of unexpected sounds, supplemented by ornamental acute notes caused by the echo; a warm sound, fluid, bewitching. KeMenuMunu almost fainted; Padre, once again, closed his eyes; old married couples and other much younger abandoned their hot milk, and, still in their pyjamas, went towards the church. The avian population, in a colourful mix of small birds, pigeons and other flying creatures, surrounded the church without making a sound, sat at its windows without upsetting the moment, and some even began to defecate.

The whistle reached the road ignoring the real barriers which were the walls of the church. The echo had not distorted one single tone; the melody arrived clear, perturbing, tearful, elevated, in a sonorous awakening perfection that revealed, more than anything else, a deep understanding of 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 there, gently rising, that magic of another world was created. It was also noted that the man had acquired a profound knowledge of the corners and corridors of whistling in the church, of the effects of whistling higher, of the consequences of whistling lower, of the results of a whistle rapidly encircling the body and the soul, of the surprising effects obtained, awaiting the result of the magnificent sound of that very echo, catching the tip of that echo with care and calmness, and from there embarking anew for the continuity of the magical whistle, the cyclical, beautiful, antagonistic sound, that, in the eloquence of chaos, he had discovered.

The endlessness of the extent of that whistle resulted, without doubt, also in an enormous metaphysical knowledge of the art of whistling, which mingled not just with the hearing of people, but extended, in an incisive manner, to the depths of their souls, the protected corner where each one hid their things – that frightening cave, which many call the centre of their being.

The people were open-mouthed, incapable of the slightest movement, comment, conscious experience. In a tone less exalted, but with the same hypnotizing capacity, each person on that square felt an invisible and whistled hand enter them through their open mouth, scratching the throat of their soul, turning over the most delicate entrails of the past. In truth, it was an almost harsh moment, delicately harsh.

KeMunuMunu, no longer closing his eyes, was armed with a perturbing sensation that he did not know how to explain to himself. As if chapters from the story of his life appeared before him in isolated images. Chapters that he never again had time to relive to the point of analyzing with relish. He wanted to move but could not; wanted to breathe deeply, but only managed to do so shallowly. Padre closed his eyes tightly, trying to suppress the tears which, coming from his soul, burnt the dark vision, the disconnected moment, the heat of the touch of the top eyelid against the bottom eyelid.

KaLua arrived in the midst of the whistle with his trouser still undone, with two or three rolls of toilet paper in his hand, and, strangely, with a few tears in just one eye. Many years ago he lost the capacity to cry, to show emotion, or even to remember things. Still with his eyes open, with obvious difficulty in breathing, he saw passing in front of him on the white canvas of the wall of the church, forgotten images of his dead family, bathing in the river with his daughters now dead, flowers on the poor but dignified table of a fortifying breakfast, the few, but clean, sheets of his brown house, his wife who could not see because she was of such pale complexion that even her eyes had become transparent. He clearly felt the burning smell, the smoke rising from the hut, the bodily wreckage of his family and the wreckage of the fire in his soul. He understood at that moment the ashes that he always suspected he has in his own little head.

KoTimbalo, the Gravedigger, would not be able to ever recover from the psychological fright that the whistle caused, and had the sensation of not being able to remember anything, of being completely emptied of things to remember, in short, of never having lived that extensive moment. Even Dona Mama, crossing the streets of her lonely widowhood more than usual, was almost untroubled; however, no one was on trial for that sound. It invoked in detail the only night of true happiness that she had had in all her life: her wedding night, on which, with an almost professional sensuality, she entered with the feverous longing, her natural and erotic longing, her physical readiness for an episode which she had always believed was magical. “How wonderful…,” she had thought the next day, on waking up.

The remainder of the people experienced, each one in their own way, similar memories, in as much as memory is a thing as much our own as everyone’s and, at the root of it all, everyone has the same type of memories, albeit in distinct and specific life experiences. Married couples broke down in tears, hanging on to the tip of that echo with care and peace, others smiled; the old people stood dead still, because they were being given an opportunity to live through, for a second time, the best moment of their lives.

The first to emerge from the trance and manage, with great difficulty, to move was KeMunuMunu. He slowly moved his hands, opened his old leather suitcase, took from it seven impeccably clean vials. Still with difficulty he began walking in the direction of the church, went up the stairs and, as he was about to put the vials at the entrance of the building, the whistling stopped.

Padre quickly wiped away his tears, looked around him, woke up. He made a sign to KeMunuMunu to return to his place, picked up the lunch things and headed for the interior of the church. He put down the things and began to close the doors.

The birds slowly began to take flight, departing. The pigeons, the noisiest of the birds, left in the air a cloud of grey feathers which, momentarily, served to shadow the people how had begun to awaken.

From the remainder of the space between the two doors, the Padre shouted: “The church is closed! It only opens on Sunday.”  

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