#CBR10bingo #Backlog — published in 2015, this has been in my stack for three years!
The Fishermen, Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, was nominated for a Man Booker prize. His second novel is due early next year. Set in the town Akure, Nigeria in the mid-1990s, The Fishermen is the story of four brothers whose lives are upended in a tragically short period of time. This novel has the feel of a parable, or of a very grim fairy tale. It has a dark psychological component that reminded me a little of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Key characters exhibit anger and/or madness, a sense of moral rightness, and a willingness to commit criminal acts in the name of what one perceives as right. Yet the fallout from such decisions can break families and individuals, particularly when the individuals are children.
The Fishermen are four brothers aged 15 to nine. Ben, the youngest, serves as the narrator of the story from a point in the future. As he relates what has happened to him and his family, the reader learns quickly that something dire has occurred. The main events occur in 1996-1997, when Ben is 9. He and his older brothers Ikenna (15), Boja (14), and Obembe (11) are very close and look out for one another. Their life has been one of predictability and stability, with little sense of the past and only optimism for the future. For Ben, the problems that they will face are rooted in the fact that their father, who works for the bank, was transferred to a job far away. Rather than relocate the family, the father moves without them. Ben describes their father as an eagle. He saw all and ruled the roost with a strict hand. Once their father leaves, only to visit on alternate weekends, the four boys begin to break some of the rules, notably the rule to never go near the Omi-Ala River. While their mother takes their two younger siblings with her to work at the market, the boys run off to the river to fish. Even though they rarely catch anything worth keeping, they have the time of their lives there until the evening they meet Abulu the madman. Abulu’s personal history is appalling, rife with violence and danger, rooted in poverty. Abulu is feared and reviled in Akure due to his uncanny and unsettling ability to predict what the future holds for certain people. When he encounters the four boys by the river, he makes a prediction about Ikenna that plants seeds of destruction within the family. Soon after, a neighbor informs the boys’ mother that she has seen the four by the river. This leads to strong punishment from their father, and it seems Ikenna never is the same, but only later will the parents learn of Abulu and his prophecy.
Obioma is a tremendously talented story teller, and Ben is a compassionate narrator who, because he was so young when all of this happened, misses or misunderstands certain key events. Adult Ben is telling us the story but through the eyes of his younger self. Thus, the linear structure of the story is broken when young Ben only later recalls things from the past that serve to clarify the actions of other characters. The full story of Abulu’s encounter with the boys, for example, is told in fractured bits because Ben did not hear or remember all that Abulu said at the time, while his closest brother Obembe did. Ben admires and is loyal to his brothers, as they are to each other, but their loyalty and trust are tested by Abulu’s prophecy. It is heart wrenching to read a nine-year-old’s perspective on the fear, anger and madness that will infect his family.
As mentioned in the first paragraph, characters will make decisions and take actions that are motivated by a sense of rightness or justice, but which will have devastating impact on the family. Yet this novel is not just about a family self-destructing; it is about Nigeria. At several points in the narrative, Ben mentions political developments in Nigeria that relate to him and his brothers, as if there were a parallel between what happens to them and what was happening to their country. The boys were fans of MKO Abiola whom they chanced to meet in Akure. MKO was the presidential candidate for the Social Democratic Party in 1993 and won but was prevented from taking office by a military dictatorship. As it happens, the story that Ben tells of his family ends with the end of that dictatorship and on a note of optimism. I don’t know much about Nigerian history but thanks to novelists like Obioma and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote about the Biafran War in Half a Yellow Sun, I am learning more.
This book would be great for a club or for use in the classroom. I could see it being put to good use in a history or lit class, or perhaps an ethics class. I would love to hear what others make of Ikenna and Abulu, for example, and of Ben’s family’s feelings toward Abulu as compared to his own. The Fishermen is an unsettling novel, and for that I recommend it.