TITLE: THE FISHERMEN
AUTHOR: CHIGOZIE OBIOMA
GENRE: PROSE FICTION
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2015
ISBN: 0316338370 (10), 978-0316338370 (13)
REVIEWER: Emmanuel O. Dairo
“Follow us, and we will make you fishermen!’—and we followed.”
And in following, the narrator, Ben, and his three brothers plunged their hooks headlong into the murky waters of the Omi Ala but caught, alongside the occasional fish, a figurative shark which would bite away, bit by bit, the happiness from their lives. The Fishermen is their story.
The Fishermen is about fish—some, palm-sized smelts; some, brown cods; some, tilapias—it is about fish-sized dreams. In the book, there are dreams of becoming a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, a professor; dreams of a better Nigeria, and dreams of Canada. There are childhood dreams, adult dreams, national dreams, and dreams that end up smelling “the smell of dead fish and tadpoles” when the dreamers are awakened by the cataclysmic prophecy of a madman.
Nine-year old Benjamin and his three older brothers, Ikenna, Boja and Obembe are youngsters living in the sleepy town of Akure. They are trilinguals who speak English in formal settings, their native Igbo with their parents and the language of the town, Yoruba, elsewhere. When their disciplinarian father Mr Agwu is transferred to a new branch of the Central Bank of Nigeria in Yola, the four brothers seize upon his absence to indulge in the norms of bye-gone years among teenagers and adolescents in the Nigeria of the 1990s – football-playing, video-gaming, mock-acting, song-chanting, and fatefully, fish-catching. It is during one of such escapades at the banks of the Omi Ala that they come face to face with Abulu the madman who soothsays the death of the eldest brother at the hands of one of his siblings. This encounter serves as the catalyst that transforms Ikenna – and the novel’s plot – into something increasingly dark. As paranoia sets in, fraternal and familial bonds are stretched to the utmost, minds begin to crack like glass, and the Agwu’s once-quiet family home becomes the stage upon which one tragedy after another is enacted.
Obioma draws upon the Aristotelian conception of tragedy. Eme Agwu, the children’s father, is the tragic figure, although he is anything but a hero. His hamartia is his pride, his misguided belief in the sufficiency of his own authority to keep his children in check. When his wife begs him to take the children with him to Yola, he refuses, relying on the children’s fear of the Guerdon – his instrument of corporal punishment – to deter them from misdemeanours in his absence—“ ‘if I hear any bad news… I mean, any funny acts at all, I’ll give you the Guerdon for them’ ” (p. 5) . He is the typical African father who sees it as his responsibility to dream up careers for his children. He wants them to be “fishermen of the mind. Go-getters. Children who will dip their hands into rivers, seas, oceans of this life and become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers” (p. 37). But his boys simply will not live on books alone. When he comes home to punish them for fishing in the wrong river, the signs are already ominous; when he returns a second time at the frantic behest of their mother, it is already too late. There is a certain inevitability in the narrative, driven, not by the words of the madman but by the fear it engenders in the minds of the four brothers, and in their harried mother. The children’s mother, Adaku, is simply one more instance of what I term the single mother phenomenon – the depiction of mothers as largely passive, overburdened, ineffectual, and emotionally fragile in most African fiction whose major concern is not feminism. She is unable to control her children by herself and perpetually turns to her husband for help—“I will tell Eme what you have done….” (p. 24).
In his blending of English and local verbal flavour – idioms, proverbs, folklore – to create a rich linguistic admixture, Chigozie Obioma has been compared to Chinua Achebe, but the adroitly-woven prose in this, his debut novel, shines with a refinement all his own . Like Achebe in Things Fall Apart, Obioma examines, among other things, the effects of creeping modernism on traditional sensibilities. In The Fishermen, particularly in the Agwu family, superstition lives alongside Pentecostalism in the same home, and in the same woman, folk tales have given way to action movies, and boju boju (a popular hide-and-seek game) has been discarded in favour of game consoles. But that is just one aspect of transformation; in the novel, everyone and everything grows. When the whole world comes crashing down on the peace in their home, the Agwu brothers are forced to grow up before their time, to take responsibility for their actions.