Four middle-class Nigerian brothers, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin, decide to go fishing in a river. They do this without their mother’s knowledge, carefully hiding away their fishing kit when they come home. Their career lasts six weeks before they are discovered by a neighbour, who tells their mother. One day at the river they meet the local oddball, Abulu, who has the power of prophecy, and who predicts that Ikenna, the eldest, will be killed by one of his brothers; by a “fisherman”. It is from this simple, almost mythological conceit that Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel grows, gaining complexity and power as it rises to its heartbreaking climax.
Like most classic African novels in the Achebe-Ngugi tradition, The Fishermen mixes the traditional English novel form with the oral storytelling tradition, dramatising the conflict between the traditional and the modern. But The Fishermen is also grounded in the Aristotelian concept of tragedy, which mostly goes: a good and noble-minded man shows hubris and is brought down by the gods for it. Here, the hubris is shown by the fishermen’s father, Mr Agwu, who aims to be better than his neighbours by siring six offspring and saying: “My children will be great men … They will be lawyers, doctors, engineers …” And with that hubris, the family’s struggle against fate begins. But as in all good tragedies, after the prophecies and the omens, it is character and logic and moral choices that drive the story to its conclusion.
The story is told in the narrative present as a recollection of past events by the now-adult Benjamin, the fourth brother. This well-managed balance between childhood action and adult memory gives the book a directness and guilelessness that is essential to its success. The author, when he wants to generate mystery or suspense, reverts to the child’s point of view, switching to that of an adult when he wants to create clarity and authority. Themes are teasingly introduced in the present, then the narrative flow is halted and the story flashes back to illustrate the theme before resuming. Thus the reader is constantly kept off-kilter, always a step behind the narrator. But it is the detailed, painstakingly built images and descriptions that give the novel its unique power. Here’s Abulu: “He reeked of sweat accumulated inside the dense growth of hair around his pubic regions and armpits. He smelt of rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus, and of bodily fluids and wastes. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear he sometimes wore…” This goes on for over a page of detailed and unrelenting description.
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