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.
Ikenna’s slow unravelling, torn as he is between his fear of the prophecy and his love for his brothers, is also captured in this documentary style. He stops eating; he withdraws into himself; he grows sick. Gradually, the mutual suspicions grow. The whole family changes, and each change is documented in the same naturalistic way. It’s like being in a Zola or Theodore Dreiser novel. Ikenna’s downward spiral is relentless, despite his brothers’ constant assurance that they’d never harm him: “None of us will kill you. We are not – Ike – we are not even real fishermen. He said a fisherman will kill you. We are not even real fishermen.”
The book works on many levels. It is, at an obvious level, a Bildungsroman; the moment the father leaves home, on a job transfer to faraway Yola in northern Nigeria, the Agwu brothers are thrust into a harsh world with which they have to cope – a metaphorical allusion to the struggles of Nigeria’s failed leaders. Ikenna, at 15, is forced to become the head of the house; his breakdown in turn forces his younger brothers to prematurely grow up.
Alongside the Agwu family’s story we also have that of Nigeria, captured in the symbolic meeting of the children with MKO Abiola, the popular millionaire politician who was believed to have won the 1993 elections, but who was robbed of his victory and eventually died in military detention. Abiola’s campaign slogan was “Hope ’93”. The brothers meet Abiola when he comes to their town, Akure, on a campaign tour, and he gives them a calendar, which they hang in their room. “When MKO became president,” they believe, “we could go to Abuja, Nigeria’s seat of government, and we would be let in by just showing the calendar.” But Ikenna tears the calendar to pieces.
The Fishermen is an elegy to lost promise, to a golden age squandered, and yet it remains hopeful about the redemptive possibilities of a new generation – what I like to call the “post-nationalist generation”, described as “egrets” in the book: harbingers of a bright future.