Updated: Nov 11, 2020
The Fishermen is a stunning and powerful story, wonderfully conceived and composed. A startlingly brilliant debut novel described by Eleanor Catton (Man Booker prize winner for The Luminaries) as “Awesome in the true sense of the word”. So, a fine way to start for both Chigozie Obioma and his readers.
This is a harrowing tale of four brothers growing up in Akure, a small town in western Nigeria, and how their lives are shattered by a series of devastating events that have their origins in Omi-Ala, the “dreadful river”, and an unhappy prophecy by a deranged soothsayer. A tale of humans suffering at the hands of something other and more powerful.
The story is narrated by Ben, the youngest of the four. Ikenna, Boja and Obembe complete the quartet. Initially this is a deceptively warming tale of family life and growing up together. Before long the story takes a sinister turn, and subsequently descends into a horrific and desperate course of actions. So much parental and brotherly love and affection, so much anger and conflict. The contrast is almost unbearable at times. Obioma describes the story as “a tribute to my many brothers, and a wake up call to a dwindling nation – Nigeria”. This is quite a tribute and quite an awakening.
There are many intertwining themes in the story. Misguided parenting, rebellion, brotherly love and hatred, actions and consequences, sadness and heartbreak, community life and the interference of others, madness and rage, all set against a backdrop of political violence and fear, with an overriding sense of tragedy and inevitability. Things falling apart both within the family and within society. Obioma pays homage to Chinua Achebe in several places.
The brothers are fishermen in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. They seek fish, but catch only tadpoles. They go fishing, or rather hunting for Abulu, with vicious consequences, tearing his flesh away with fish hooks. Metaphorically, the father of the brothers calls for the boys to be fishers of men and seekers of education and knowledge. But this kind of fishing is not attractive to them and never comes to fruition.
Fishing in both senses ends in the triumph of death over hope.
“Hope was a tadpole. The thing you caught and brought home with you in a can, but which, despite being kept in the right water, soon died. Father’s hope that we would grow up into many great people, his map of dreams, soon died, despite how much he guarded it”. These are the cynical thoughts of Ben after all the suffering and heartbreak.
The death of hope is inextricably linked with the theme of vengeance and justice. Obembe regards it as his duty to avenge the deaths of his brothers, despite their deaths not being physically attributable to the perceived killer. Pseudo-justice and vigilante behaviour are rife. Eventually, formal legal justice prevails, but it is cruel in its selection, applying to the only one who gets caught, and it just doesn’t feel right.
The author in front of the BBC building in 2015
Throughout, Obioma presents a striking combination of the normal, the grotesque and the supernatural. Every day human experiences, hopes and dreams mingling with base, degrading, human behaviour, wrapped up with mystical prophecies that seem absurd yet have so often come true in the past for members of the community. The story can be linked to the traditions of the great Shakespearian and Greek tragedies. Ordinary men, perhaps destined for greatness, succumbing to knowledge foretold and powerless to prevent themselves from bringing about their own downfall. What happens between Boja and Ikenna is tragically inevitable. Resistance is futile.
The novel also has links with a long tradition in African novels of magical spirits, witch doctors, and humanity seeking alternative divine intervention. In contrast, the Christian religion is largely ineffectual and irrelevant. People worship. The pastor gets involved to offer leadership and counselling, but none of this seems to have any real impact on people’s daily lives.
The Fishermen is a fiercely compelling and at times deeply disturbing story. The failed relationships and shattered lives are saddening and shocking, and yet they are essential to the momentum of a narrative seemingly controlled by destiny. Most good stories rely on conflict and suffering to some extent. And the craft with which the distressing elements have been handled and presented is superb.
The story has moments of warmth and humanity. There is increasing affection within the family as it dwindles, but this is frequently interrupted and short-lived. As the story draws to a close the narration becomes increasing like a confession, with the reader as confidant and the prison sentence representing some form of penance, but with empty and meaningless absolution. Still, despite sadness beyond measure, not all has been destroyed and some sort of future remains to be confronted.
© Eddie Hewitt 2015