A review of Chigozie Obioma’s novel, The Fishermen
Much like his contemporaries Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sefi Atta and Uzodinma Iweala, Chigozie Obioma uses Nigeria’s tumultuous political and cultural heritage as the broad canvas for his lyrical, profound and surprising first novel, The Fishermen, which weaves history, domesticity and magic into the moving modern parable of a family struggling to withstand the many forces of change surrounding them.
Told from the perspective of Benjamin Azikiwe Agwu, the fourth of five brothers and a baby sister, who recollects the time, as a nine year-old boy, when he and his brothers became fishermen. Although Ben and his brothers’ clandestine fishing enterprise is violently put to an end early in the novel by the force of the “Guerdon”, the sinister name given to their father’s whip, the title is imbued with fresh but ambiguous significance when, postpunishment, the brothers are told to be “a different kind of fishermen”.
Ben’s father dreams of seeing his sons become doctors, lawyers and professors, but after making this declaration, he leaves home for a training course in Ghana. This catalyses the tragic fratricide of the eldest brother Ikenna by second eldest Boja, the subsequent suicide of Boja, and the vengeful murder of local madman-cum-mystic Abulu (who prophesies Ikenna’s death by one of his brothers) by Ben and his older brother Obembe.
But don’t be fooled into thinking The Fishermen is a novel of unrelenting trauma. Obioma’s skill is his ability to tie domestic tragedy inextricably to the trials and tribulations endured by the Nigerian nation more broadly without ever labouring the point. This is evident in the description of the blood that covers the kitchen floor after Ikenna’s death: “The floor was drenched in his blood: a living, moving blood that slowly journeyed under the refrigerator, and, uncannily – like the rivers Niger and Benue whose confluence at Lokoja birthed a broken and mucky nation – joined with palm oil forming an unearthly pool of bleached red, like puddles that form in small cavities on dirt roads.”
To Ben’s young eyes, Ikenna’s pooling blood forms the shape of a map of Nigeria, a nation created out of the wounds of colonial plunder and internecine conflict. But this blood is moving and alive, coalescing with palm oil to produce a new substance that can fill and support the potholes in Nigeria’s broken roads: roads that still cross and connect a sprawling nation that has endured terrible pain.
So rather than offering us some simplistic basket case tragedy, Obioma weaves a complex parable of contemporary Nigeria. Each chapter begins with a framing metaphor, often anthropomorphic (“Father was an eagle”; “Ikenna was a python”; “Mother was a falconer”), which defines and guides but never truncates the narrative of each mini-parable. This imbues the novel with a timeless, even biblical quality. It is a novel not afraid to draw parallels between the local and national (and spiritual) and, by so doing, embraces the uglier side of the country’s recent past. But it is also a work that refuses to pass judgement on those ugly, painful experiences, leaving its striking descriptions to reverberate and tantalise until the narrative’s end.
The novel repeatedly invokes Chinua Achebe’s seminal and oft cited novel, Things Fall Apart. While Obioma places it effectively in the context of The Fishermen (when plotting the death of Abulu, Ben’s bookworm brother Obembe uses Okonkwo’s murder of the messenger at the end of Things Fall Apart as inspiration), his novel can be criticised, like Achebe’s, for its gender politics. While Ben’s mother is a central figure early in the story while his father is away, and her lonely struggle to keep her family together even as the relationship between her elder sons unravels, is touchingly etched, she is quickly relegated to the margins when Ben’s father returns and she becomes crushed by despair. There are only two other named female characters in the novel: the briefly encountered Mama Iyabo and Ben’s baby sister, Nkem. The novel’s blatant phallocentrism feels outdated and unfulfilling, as if Achebe’s influence on Obioma constricts the imaginative scope of the narrative, leading the novelist to dredge up problematic tropes in order to appear “authentic”.
Nevertheless, the novel’s deep and meticulous concern with exploring the connection between past and present shines through, imbuing even the darkest scenes with flashes of illuminating remembrance. During Ikenna’s funeral, Ben recalls: “Memories of my lost brother filled me, for it seemed the past suddenly exploded and fragments of the past began floating freely in his eyes like confetti in an air-filled balloon.”
The Fishermen insists on foregrounding the central role that memory must play in complicating, clarifying and developing our understanding of the kaleidoscope of people, places, struggles and joys that form our present lives. This is a bold and often beautiful first work from a talented writer, filled to the brim with humanity and promise.
Main Photograph: Timo Sachsenberg