This first novel by the 28-year-old Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma is one of the final six contenders for this year’s Booker Prize. It’s a passionate, jostling and flamboyant piece of work, set in Nigeria during the military rule of the Nineties, which conceals a subtle state-of-the-nation allegory in its tale of a progressive family driven to disintegration by a folk prophecy.
The Fishermen follows four brothers from the middle-class Agwu family growing up in the city of Akure. Their father, an employee of the national bank, is a determined man who exhorts his sons to become “children who will dip their hands into rivers, seas, oceans of this life and become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers”.
Instead, as soon as their father’s job requires him to travel out of state, the brothers start bunking off school to go fishing in the Omi-Ala. This river – once flourishing, now polluted – is the first of several fairly naked metaphors that wind through Obioma’s book. “Like many such rivers in Africa,” he writes, “Omi-Ala was once believed to be a god; people worshipped it… This changed when the colonialists came from Europe, and introduced the Bible, which then prized Omi-Ala’s adherents from it, and the people, now largely Christians, began to see it as an evil place.”
Sure enough, the boys are chased away from their fishing by an angry priest, beaten by their father and, most significantly, encounter the local lunatic, Abulu, whose dire warnings set the novel’s tragic plot in motion.
Caked in filth, apparently invulnerable, Abulu is seen as a sort of god-monster and accorded the gift of divination. His prediction that Ikenna, the family’s eldest brother, will be killed “by a fisherman” – that is, by one of his brothers – sends the Agwu family into the spiral of fear, mistrust and violence that carries the novel to its conclusion.
There’s a tinge of Shakespearean or Greek tragedy to such a prophetic set-up – with the fatal flaw being the father’s presumptuous ambitions for his children. There is also a succinct postcolonial allegory, as the sprouting seeds of division and dissatisfaction begin to tear the family apart. But The Fishermen is anything but programmatic in its concerns. The overwhelming impression it leaves is one of vitality, profusion and abundance, as Obioma’s narrative leaps about in time, teases with digressions or surrenders to purple enthusiasm.
There’s a great deal of play in the text between the things that one may say in Igbo, the family tongue of the book’s characters and the linguistic terrain of folk belief, and the things one must say in English, the language of so-called modernity but also “a formal language with which strangers and non-relatives addressed you”. Obioma’s approach attempts to mix these two strands, resulting in a delighted impasto of English prose.
It conjures a sense of real threat and dislocation, for example, when he describes the emotional consequences of a massacre: “The people would wake with bodies sodden with anxiety, hearts pulsating with fear, heads drooping with the memory of loss, eyes dripping with tears, lips gyrating in solemn prayers, and bodies trembling with fright. They would all become like blurred pencil portraits in a child’s wrinkled drawing book, waiting to be erased.” But he also has a relish for big words in the place of little ones (he’s always writing “dentition” when he means teeth) and at other times, his relish for mixture and metaphor betrays the sense altogether. “Crumbs of information,” he writes at one point, “began to fall from Mother’s soliloquy like tots of feathers from a richly-plumed bird.”
Even so, it’s hard not to surrender to such a full-force approach – and this pays dividends in the book’s final third, where its strange formality of style contrasts more wildly with the hallucinatory, grief-stricken forms of madness it describes. Even if this doesn’t win the Booker, I’d be astonished if other prizes don’t await Obioma down the road.