Book Review: Chigozie Obioma’s ‘The Fishermen’

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Literature is a sector Nigerians have performed well- we dominate the prizes in our continent and have done well globally, bagging prizes from the Nobel Prize to the Booker and the Orange Prize, etc.

Occasionally, a writer with Nigerian ancestry becomes a breakout star in the West.

This year, Chigozie Obioma is the name that is carrying that legacy. The young author’s ‘The Fishermen’ is getting stellar reviews and acclaim from the New York Times and others and will surely bag an award or two. I see it winning the Booker prize, at least.

Narrated mainly from the point of view of 9-year-old Benjamin, the youngest of four brothers, ‘The Fishermen’ is a mix of ‘Macbeth’, ‘The gods are not to Blame’, ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’ and the biblical Cain and Abel story. In it, a notoriously powerful madman tells the oldest of four brothers that he is destined to be killed by one of his siblings.

The book is set in the mid-90s Akure, a sleepy semi-urban town in southwestern Nigeria, before the proliferation of video games, DVDs and cable TV. Back then, teenagers played football and roamed the streets to pass time. Ikenna (15), Boja (14), Obembe (11) and Benjamin decided to be fishermen and returning from their expedition one day, they encounter Abulu, the part madman and prophet, with his prophecy of fratricide.

Abulu prophecies were known to come true. The incident will cause Ikenna to be wary of his brothers. Efforts by his brothers and his mother to ease his mind failed and, at the end, tragedy occurred in the Agwu family.

It was Leo Tolstoy who said something along the lines that life is lived when tiny changes occur. In ‘The Fishermen’ we see the tiny changes which can occur in familial relationships. This started with the transfer of the patriarch from Akure to Yola and the children having to raise themselves because their mother couldn’t do it alone, to the rebellion of Ikenna and his subsequent withdrawal from his siblings.

What makes reading this book so enjoyable is that the scenes are vivid and come to life in your mind eye. Obioma has a keen descriptive ability, which sometimes pushes you to close your eyes and dream the scenes in real time.

Scenes such as when the father flogged the boys after he found out that they have been fishing at the local river and later giving an exhortation to the boys to become “fishermen of the mind”. There was also the encounter when the boys met the larger than life MKO Abiola and his wife Kudirat. The clincher for the best scene is when the madman, Abulu, gave the prophecy that will lead the family on a downward spiral.

The Fisherman is replete with proverbs and our indigenous language. This will lead the critics to label Chigoze Obioma as the new Chinua Achebe. Regardless, Obioma is original and well steeped in the art of storytelling. There are no half measures or forced feelings, when he wants to make you laugh he pulls it off effortlessly and in one stroke he takes all the joy and rips your heart out.

The initial pages grip you with the foreboding of disaster and the middle leads you into the tragic events and leaves you devastated. Exactly at the middle of the book when certain tragic acts had unfolded, I couldn’t breathe or move and I stopped reading. I was stung. The ground was removed from under my feet.

The second half of the book deals with life after the tragic happenings. Life goes on, albeit on a downward spiral, from then on. This is really a dark book on how children who Mr. Agwu charged to be great men, lawyers, doctors, engineers, ‘Fishermen of the minds’ will turn out to be murderers and fugitives from justice. The book in a way can be related to Nigeria, how we squander the potential we have. But just like egrets described in the last chapter who emerge with wings afloat in the air at the end of everything, there is hope that things will get better. Through it all there may be redemption around the corner.

The best character in this book, although sharing less than 10% of the pages, is Abulu. I often reread text concerning him because the sentences were delightful. Here is one:

“He subpoenaed tranquil spirits, fanned violence of small flames, and rattled the lives of many. He entered this realm mostly in the evenings when sun has shed all of its light. Having transformed into Abulu, the Prophet, he’d go about singing, clapping and prophesying.” – Page 85 Kindle version.

This book takes you through different emotions, there will be parts where you will shout ‘no, no, don’t do it’, there will be moments that will make you laugh and giddy, and then there are times you will pause reading to sob.

It is an enjoyable read by Chigozie Obioma, five-star writing. ‘The Fisherman’ grips you so hard like an anvil that after you are done reading you don’t want to let go of the book. It makes you mad after reading this book that this is his first and only book, no more to read.

Photo Credit: Zach Mueller

1 Comment

  1. Jaja

    June 25, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    I share hope for him but this – “I see it winning the Booker Prize, at least” – is plain ridiculous. Ask someone who knows a little about prizes. This is why Ikhide remains one of the finest reviewers. Brrrrriliant book!

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