The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

The prophecy, like an angered beast, had gone berserk and was destroying his mind with the ferocity of madness, pulling down paintings, breaking walls, emptying cupboards, turning tables until all that he knew, all that was him, all that had become him was left in disarray.

The Fishermen is a deceptively small book. It’s not much more than two hundred pages, but in those pages it manages to be an allegory about post-colonial governments, a tragedy in the classical mould, and a particularly high-stakes coming-of-age story. Chigozie Obioma, its twenty-nine-year-old author (brief pause for those of you under thirty to be sick with envy; we resume), writes in a style that melds oral storytelling rhythms with the portentousness of myth, all filtered through the eyes of a child. If that sounds like a difficult thing to pull off, well, it is, but Obioma does it, which is probably why the Man Booker Prize committee put The Fishermen on its longlist.

The basic story is that four brothers, ranging in age from nine to fifteen, are left to get up to mischief when their father, who works for the Central Bank of Nigeria, is transferred to a different town. He visits every other weekend, but it’s not enough for him to maintain the discipline of his household, and Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin are soon traipsing down to the river with lines and fishing hooks instead of going to school. On one of these trips, a local madman named Abulu prophesies that Ikenna, the eldest, will be killed by a fisherman, which the boy takes to mean one of his own brothers. From then on, the novel spirals into the doom of the inevitable, as fear of the prophecy and attempts to avoid it lead only to its fulfilment.

Plenty of novels try to incorporate elements of classical literature, but not many of them manage to integrate those elements fully into a culture that seems, at first glance, utterly different. Nigeria in the 1990s, for instance, doesn’t look much like the environment that spawned classical notions of tragedy. But it has, in spades, the requisite elements. The Agwu boys are kept pinned beneath the hubris of their father, who has picked out professions for each of his sons that will make them “great men”: a pilot, a lawyer, a professor. Mr. Agwu’s determination to keep his children on the straight and narrow is more destructive than he imagines: having set himself up as the arbiter of discipline, he doesn’t realize that by leaving the household, he also leaves his sons without an authority figure. Although they are an educated and middle-class family, Mrs. Agwu’s authority is entirely subordinated to her husband’s, and she must resort to threatening the boys with the prospect of being beaten by him, instead of being able to discipline them herself. In deeply classical mode, Mr. Agwu brings upon himself the very thing he is trying to guard against: the wasting of his sons’ potential.

Once the prophecy is made, this sense of inevitability only grows. Ikenna, who is the eldest and the leader, shuts himself away from his younger brothers out of fear. His mother can’t prevail upon him to go to church, not even to pray for himself: “I am a scientist!” he shouts at her, but he doesn’t behave like someone who believes in the primacy of reason. Instead, he antagonizes and rejects his brothers by turns until eventually provoking a fight with the second oldest, Boja. Obioma’s slightly breathless prose style works particularly well in the scene where Ikenna’s body is found:

Obembe was not alone in the kitchen. Mr. Bode stood beside him, his hands on his head, gnashing his teeth. Yet there was a third person, who, however, had become a lesser creature than the fish and tadpoles we caught at Omi-Ala. This person lay facing the refrigerator, his wide-opened eyes still and fixed in one place. It was obvious these eyes could not glimpse a thing. His tongue was stuck out of his mouth from which a pool of white foam had trailed down to the floor, and his hands were splayed wide apart as though nailed to an invisible cross. Half-buried in his belly was the wooden end of Mother’s kitchen knife, its sharp blade deep in his flesh.

Gory, yes, but also a magnificent tease of a paragraph, in the guise of an innocent child’s reportage. “This person” isn’t even named as Ikenna until two paragraphs later, but it doesn’t matter; what Obioma doesn’t write is just as effective as what he does, his style managing to be both stripped down and full of detail.

(I’m now writing on my phone, without access to the book or a charger, so the last half of this review is going to be me trying to get down my remaining impressions as effectively as possible. Onwards!)

The clever thing that Obioma does is to not stop with Ikenna’s death. He could easily have done so; a lesser novelist might have done. But he makes the point of the story be not just about the prophecy’s effect on Ikenna; instead, it’s about what unchecked fear and superstition does to an entire family. Boja, Ikenna’s killer, is also headed for a reckoning, and after he meets his fate, the two younger boys, Obembe and Benjamin, become obsessed with murdering Abulu, the madman whose prophecy started the whole saga in the first place.

Their desperation to blame someone external, some kind of elemental misfortune, for the decisions that led to such disaster, is particularly interesting because the novel is interspersed with flashbacks to the boys’ childhood, and much of these reflect political unrest in Nigeria. Ikenna, for instance, becomes a local hero at the age of about twelve when he drives his younger brothers away from a political riot in an abandoned truck, and one of the greatest moments of the brothers’ childhoods is meeting MKO Abiola, who became the president of Nigeria. The reader can see how he manipulates them, how they are used as photo op fodder for Abiola’s campaign, but his ambiguous goodness as a leader or man doesn’t prevent him from being a monumental figure in the lives of these children. Politics is personal, in this novel, in a way similar (though not identical) to the personal politics in A Brief History of Seven Killings. And the personal investment in politics means also that when the politicians fail, as they inevitably do, it feels like a personal betrayal. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Abiola is found dead in “suspicious circumstances” just as the events of the novel are also reaching their climax.  Meanwhile, the autocratic Mr Agwu reflects both the long shadow of paternalistic colonialism–which valued things such as “education”, “civilised behaviour”, and “bettering oneself”–and the stranglehold of tyrannical leadership under which many African countries suffered when the colonisers moved out without bothering to create a system that could function after them. His absence from the family home is what enables the boys to go to the river in the first place, and although I don’t think Obioma is writing a defense of any sort of paternalism, I think he does want to convey how easy it is to make fatally bad decisions when you are suddenly given a great deal of latitude without being accustomed to any.

It is, in short, a very good book: sobering, moving, but with a light touch and, in Benjamin, a protagonist we can ache for, with a child’s voice that mercifully avoids irritating precocity. A short-lister? One hopes so.

nb: Many thanks to ONE/Pushkin Press for a review copy of this book.

4 thoughts on “The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

  1. Oooh, the Booker longlist left me feeling a bit lost as I didn’t know nearly all of the books. But I think I’m going to start with this one; it sounds very intriguing as someone born and raised in a postcolonial country, I love postcolonial narratives.

    I didn’t read the whole review through, just enough to give me the basics as I want to be a bit surprised when I actually read. But really, thanks for writing this!

  2. Woohoo! This one is a good starting point, actually, if you want to dig into the long list a little. It’s not very long, which really helps, and there’s a terrifying simplicity about the way in which the plot describes disaster after disaster. Very recommended–I’d love to know what you think! Where did you grow up, by the way? Your comment about growing up in a post-colonial country piqued my interest.

    1. There are a couple of debuts this year-another I really like the look of is The Chimes by Anna Smaill. You’re right, too, it is terribly impressive!

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