The Nigerian novelist Chigozie Obioma’s first novel is a dark, striking tale about family and fate.
Like many of the books on the Man Booker shortlist, The Fishermen—the debut novel of 28-year-old Chigozie Obioma, the youngest nominee—is unflinchingly dark. The book jacket uses the adjective “Cain and Abel-esque,” which gives readers a fair warning of what to expect. But Obioma does more than transplant a familiar biblical story to 1990s Nigeria. He also does away with its moral clarity, along with any clear sense of justice, responsibility, and blame. His work has impressed critics: “Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe,” writes Fiammetta Rocco in The New York Times, one of many reviewers to compare Obioma to the celebrated Nigerian author.
The title of Achebe’s most famous book, Things Fall Apart, would also serve as an accurate plot description of The Fishermen. Obioma’s protagonists are four brothers— Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Benjamin—who live in the village of Akure, Obioma’s own birthplace. When the novel opens, Ikenna, the oldest, is 15. After their stern father is transferred to the city of Yola by his employer, the Central Bank of Nigeria, the brothers begin to ignore their studies and sneak off to go fishing in the Omi-Ala River, which locals consider a cursed place.
It’s during one of these trips that the brothers encounter Abulu, a local madman known for his eerily accurate prophecies. He calls to Ikenna by name and makes a prediction: Ikenna will die a terrible death, murdered by one of his brothers. Everything to come hinges on this moment, and so does the mystery at the core of The Fishermen. Does fate have its own gravitational pull, or is it just the power of conviction? Obioma leaves the reader to decide what counts more, that Abulu makes the prophecy or that Ikenna believes it.
The prophecy, like an angered beast, had gone berserk and was destroying [Ikenna’s] 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.
Meanwhile, Abulu the prophet keeps making slightly nauseating appearances, though he never seems to pose a real threat. Gleeful and manic, Abulu wanders the town, singing and eating from garbage bins, and indulging an unpleasant habit of masturbating in public. At one point, he has intercourse with a corpse. He stinks of rotten mangoes and his own excrement, “of leftover meat at the open abattoir in the town, of leftover things devoured by vultures, of used condoms from the La Room motel, of sewage water and filth.” Both ridiculed and feared, Abulu lacks the malice of a convincing villain even as he exerts a strange sway over the novel’s characters.
Though The Fishermen reads like a parable, it offers no clear lesson. There are too many unanswered questions, or too many questions for which every answer is unsatisfying. Who bears responsibility for the book’s tragedy? Abulu, for issuing the prophecy? Obembe, for blurting out the worst of it when he could have kept silent? Ikenna, for letting it consume him once Obembe has relayed it? Their mother, and much of the rest of their community, who elevated a madman to the status of prophet? Their father, for not helping to follow through on his prophecy, or injunction, after he finds out about his sons’ secret expeditions to the Omi-Ala River? He invokes a different future for them, as “a different kind of fishermen … fishermen of the mind. Go-getters. Children who will dip their hands into rivers, seas, oceans of this life and become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers.” And then he goes back to the city, absent when the family needs him most.
In an interview earlier this year, Obioma described the novel as in part “a critique of the British occupation of Nigeria,” and called the attempts of colonial Britain to forge a nation out of disparate tribes “tantamount to the prophecy of a madman.” (Read the rest of the interview here.) This reading seems to suggest that Abulu (i.e. colonial Britain) deserves the bulk of the blame, and perhaps that the brothers’ struggles represent tribal divisions. Yet it would be limiting, and too neat, to label The Fishermen a political allegory. Obioma pulls readers beyond symbolism into a human story of personal fates and what shapes them.
Obioma was just awarded the inaugural Emerging Voices prize for African and Middle Eastern fiction, but I’ll make no prediction about the fate of The Fishermen at the hands of the Man Booker judges. (I’ve yet to read the other novels, and in any case, am feeling wary of prophecies.) Whatever happens, Obioma has written a striking book—and luckily, people are noticing.
CREDITS: Naomi Sharp