Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

The Fishermen is a biblical Cain and Abel type story of prophecy, fate, grief and brotherhood, set in 1993 Nigeria against a backdrop of political upheaval and disappointment, broken promises and extinguished hope. The plot follows Ben and his brothers, 4 promising young men from a middle class background, as their aspirations, hopes and entire lives start to crumble. It's the first title from 2015's Booker Shortlist that I've tackled so far, and I quite fancy its chances.

The story is narrated retrospectively by an adult Benjamin, the fourth brother of 6 siblings, as he recounts a chain of events that began when he was 9. The family's eventual collapse is set in motion when the father, an intimidating and ambitious man with high hopes for his sons is transferred to a different branch of the Central Nigerian Bank, 'camel distance' away. As a result he is forced to leave the family home. He leaves his wife to look after the four older sons and 2 toddlers. Without the long arm of the law wielded by their father, Ben and his brothers Ikenna, Boja and Obembe take advantage of this disciplinary lapse to take up fishing in a forbidden and possibly cursed river. Over the course of six glorious weeks, the four brothers get much joy from fishing and delight in their catches; singing songs, dancing dances, bonding. Though they know they will be severely punished if caught, fishing becomes an addiction to them and the danger seems almost abstract. Ben, the youngest of the four is in awe of his stronger, bigger brothers, and his love for them is obvious. On the afternoon that changes their lives, they meet the village madman Abulu, sprawled naked under a mango tree near the river. Feared by the superstitious residents of the town due to the accuracy of his predictions, Abulu's prophecy foretells that Ikenna, the eldest, will be killed by one of his brothers; will be killed by a fisherman.

It's this prophecy that begins to erode the bonds of brotherhood between the four. Ben talks with fear and sadness about the 'metamorphosis' of his brother- the prophecy, combined with a vigorous beating from his retuned father (with extra lashes for being the eldest ad therefore most responsible) Ikenna's whole personality begins to change. He becomes surly and argumentative, fights with Boja constantly; he becomes disrespectful to his mother and spends all his time holed up in his room- not eating, not washing. Scared of his increasingly erratic behaviour, Boja moves in to the room shared by his younger siblings, away from Ikenna. Their struggling mother despairs at her eldest son, convinced he has been possessed or affected in some way by evil spirits. As Ikenna continues to assert his dominance, the three brothers are pushed to the limit of their nerves, and it ends, predictably and inevitably in tragedy.It's quite Macbeth-esque, the dwelling over the prophecy, the fear and paranoia it creates. It escalates and escalates, until death and revenge and grief is all that's left. It makes the reader wonder about the nature of free will, and our ability to make decisions, about whether or not we are actually the authors of our own misadventures or whether they were in store all along.

There's the contrast between tradition and the modern that seems to be at the core of so many African narratives present in The Fishermen too; the Christian faith upheld by many of the characters is forgotten at times, replaced with superstition and folk-stories; the switching between English, Igbo and Yoruba languages, depending on the topic at hand. Then there was MKO, a symbol of the hopeful future, compared with the dictator of the present. The contrast between the real, logical world of science and the folkish world of curses, demons and spirits. The characters, like Nigeria itself are trying to forge their own identities- it's a coming of age story for the brothers and for their homeland.

I thought this was an evocative narrative that was skilfully spun; the dust of the roads and the acrid heat of the Nigerian summer were incredibly real, and the tension was very skilfully maintained throughout. Even from early on the book has a foreboding inevitability to it. It was hard to read about a family being so thoroughly destroyed, even if it seemed like the only way that events could play out. I loved too how the political situation that forms the backdrop of the novel reflects the fates and fortunes of the Agwu family; promising, hopeful, then ruined.

All in all it was an engaging and tense read that really transported me to its time and place. I became really invested in these characters, particularly Obembe, who seemed so full of rage and sadness. The transformation of the family towards the end of the book is pretty heartbreaking, and it's easy to see what effect shattered dreams have on the mental and physical well-being of a family. A really accomplished debut.

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