In the small town of Akure in Nigeria, an ambitious father dreams of the illustrious futures awaiting his sons.
Ikenna the eldest at 15, is destined to be a pilot, Boja a lawyer, Obembe the family’s medical doctor and nine-year-old Ben, a professor. Even David, barely three years old, had his future mapped out as an engineer. Only the youngest child has an unchartered future but as a girl, to her father she didn’t count.
Mr Agwu’s plans crumble when his employer transfers him to a bank in the north of the country. Freed from their father’s strict control, they take to fishing in the river surrounding Akure despite its dark history as a place of floating corpses and mutilated bodies. It’s here they encounter Abulu, a deranged, malodorous creature.
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, of bodily fluids and wastes. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear…… But these were not all: he smelt of immaterial things. He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls.
Abulu predicts Ikenna will be killed by one of his fishermen brothers, a prophecy which dogs the boys’ lives and from which tragedy ensues.
This is a coming-of-age tale of brotherly love and the disintegration of a family, of how a good and noble man is punished for his pride and a loving mother is unhinged. It’s a tale of the fight between the choices we make and the choices we’re believed we’re forced to take.
In parallel we have the story of Nigeria itself. Chigozie Obioma has called The Fishermen a wake-up call to his home country, a “dwindling nation” which he portrays as a country whose promise, like that of Agwu’s sons, is never fulfilled. Brother turns on brother and independence descends into civil war. The hope that rides on the popular politician MKO Abiola is destroyed when election results are rigged and he ends up in military detention. As Ben, the story’s narrator, reflects many years after the event:
Hope is 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.
I know little about Nigeria’s history but I didn’t need it in order to enjoy this novel enormously. Chigozie Obioma blends traditional techniques of novel writing with African story-telling traditions, sprinkles his text liberally with songs and snatches of conversation in Igbo and Yoruba and references to Igbo culture and superstitions.
The above average quota of symbols and metaphors give it a distinctively writerly feel. Every chapter opens with a metaphor which draws a parallel between a family member and an animal or creature: father is an eagle; Ikenna a sparrow, mother a falconer etc. Its a technique that could easily be tediously over-elaborated – a case of form over substance – but the point is not to simply decorate the story but to draw out a dimension of that individual’s character, showing their true nature and the forces that drive their actions.
That doesn’t mean this is a novel without flaws. Obioma does tend to get totally carried away with his verbal cleverness sometimes, opting for the highly descriptive when a more simple form of words would suffice. Adjectives proliferate, some more successfully inventive than others. A description of dusk as a “crepuscular awning” I can accept more easily than seeing body odour referred to as a “corporeal convoy” and I’m still struggling to make sense of “the egg-white days of our lives”.
But The Fishermen is still a wonderfully vivid and heart breaking tale. I have a feeling even if Obioma doesn’t win the Booker Prize with this debut novel, that we’ll be hearing a lot more of him in the future.
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press. Born and raised in Nigeria, Obioma now lives in Michigan, USA.