We were fishermen:
My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives.
A complex interplay of dream, myth, language, and family delivered in a lyrical voice of great assurance, full of significations which sweep back and forth though the novel: this marks Chigozie Obioma’s powerful debut The Fishermen as a tragedy in a classical yet distinctively Nigerian mould. Left with their mother when their father moves across Nigeria for work, four brothers—Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Ben—find something to occupy themselves in the absence of paternal discipline. They discover the forbidden pleasure of fishing in Akure’s polluted and forsaken river: “a source of dark rumours” once revered as a god, but seen after the colonial advent of Christianity as “an evil place. A cradle besmeared.”
After one such trip to the river, the madman Abulu prophesies the death of Ikenna. “He said, Ikenna, you shall die by the hands of a fisherman.” Who are the fishermen but his brothers? “He saw a vision that one of you will kill me,” Ikenna says. Ikenna’s ensuing paranoia and decline signal the breakdown of the fraternal relationship. One aspect of tragedy is the question of whether the protagonist’s attempts to elude their fate ultimately guarantee it. Narrated many years after the events it depicts, Ben’s story of his brothers has about it the inevitability of prophecy fulfilled, the symmetry of a moral tale, and the depth of myth.
“You compare everything to animals, Ben,” Ikenna said, shaking his head as if the comparison had annoyed him. “He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman—a madman.”
Ikenna was a python:
A wild snake that became a monstrous serpent living on trees, on plains above other snakes.
Obioma’s imagery is rooted in the animism which has been largely—but not entirely—supplanted by Christianity in the south and Islam in the north of Nigeria. Thus “Father was an eagle: The mighty bird that planted his nest high above the rest of his peers, hovering and watching over his young eagles, the way a king guards his throne.” Locusts are forerunners of nourishing yet catastrophic rains. “Spiders were beasts of grief.” And, in a manner which recalls Bede’s bird momentarily safe from winter storms, “Ikenna was a sparrow: A thing with wings, able to fly out of sight in the blink of an eye”. This serves to connect the trajectory of each character to a rich symbolic framework and the metamorphoses of myth. It also connects the world of the 90s—of coups, riots, elections, and the Olympics—with Nigeria’s powerful pre-Christian spiritual residue. In this way Obioma’s writing serves as an intermediary between the two worlds in a way which mirrors Abulu the madman’s visions and songs.
Mother was a falconer:
The one who stood on the hills and watched, trying to stave off whatever ill she perceived was coming to her. She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in their forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm.
Early allusions to and later appearances of Things Fall Apart should come as no surprise in The Fishermen, a novel the central characters of which are Igbo and who share the “great man” syndrome of Nigeria’s post-colonial history. The story of a family as a microcosm of the nation is nothing new, but Obioma’s study of disunity, paranoia, and violence emerges from and reflects the violence and instability of recent Nigerian history effectively, whilst refusing the fatalism that an otherwise tragic story might inspire. Despite everything, Ben’s tale is elegiac and full of love.
“Yes, Daddy,” I replied, clearing my throat, and began praying in English, the only language in which I knew how to pray.
Language is vital in The Fishermen. Nigeria’s wealth of languages and polyglot population mean that the contours of thought, speech, and society can be mapped by the linguistic choices of each individual. Accordingly, Ben is scrupulous in recording the language in which the central exchanges of the novel are conducted. Parents speak in Igbo—the language of the family’s ethnic group—the children in the local language of Akure, Yoruba. English is reserved for moments of crisis and religion. Thus the different capacities and mental propensities of each language—its rhythms and emphases—change the dynamic of each exchange and signal its nature and emotional tenor, serving to enrich and empower the meaning behind the utterance.
English, although the official language of Nigeria, was a formal language with which strangers and non-relatives addressed you. It had the potency of digging craters between you and your friends or relatives if one of you switched to using it. So, our parents hardly spoke English, except in moments likes this, when the words were intended to pull the ground from beneath our feet.
Consequently, Obioma pays a great deal of attention to the way characters speak: to sound as well as meaning. In his anger at their fishing, the boys’ father shouts “Fish-a-men!” Differences and difficulties in pronunciation mark the boundaries between Yoruba and Igbo, serving to highlight the family’s distinctiveness even as their unity dissolves. Having established the significance of language, Obioma is able to use it to demonstrate the power of grief and depression. The significance of silence in so capacious a linguistic community is profound. As is the power of such a rich language to overwhelm.
Mother’s space in the room of existence gradually shrank as days passed. She became encircled by ordinary words, common tropes, familiar songs, all of which transformed into fiends whose sole purpose was the obliteration of her being.
Indeed, it is the power of Abulu’s utterance—something which stands between the family’s Christianity and the native religions of Nigeria—which powers the ramifying imperatives of the central tragedy and its consequences. The tangled lines of the fishermen bind the brothers together as their fate impends. Obioma’s careful voice delivers powerful lyric moments, probing violence and grief and sadness. The Fishermen is an impressive debut novel which balances great immediacy with myth and tragedy. In its assurance and care it delivers a rich and compelling tale.
I used to wish that I was a fish, and that all my brothers were fish too. And that all we did, all day, every day, was swim forever and ever and ever.
The Fishermen is published by the One imprint of Pushkin Press.
Look who’s ahead of the Booker longlist! It sounds excellent actually, a lovely combination of myth and actuality. It’ll be interesting to see if it makes the shortlist.
Yes, I’m pretty pleased about that. I think it’s very good indeed. It’s very well constructed and develops nicely. Nice to see it on the list.