Of Fishermen and Fish-sized Dreams: A Review of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen

“‘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.

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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. The parents, in a sense, begin to grow down: the overburdened mother descends into insecurity before suffering lapses and relapses into insanity while the father’s transfer to Yola marks the beginning of his inexorable loss of control over his self and his home :

Father had changed so much that when he talked, he no longer made eye contact. I’d observed this in the prison reception hall where he’d told me about mother. He used to be a stronger man; an impregnable man who defended fathering so many children by saying he wanted us to be many so that there could be diversity of success in the family. “My children will be great men,” he’d say. “They will be lawyers, doctors, engineers— and see, our Obembe has become a soldier.” And for many years, he’d carried this bag of dreams. He did not know that what he bore all those days was a bag of maggoty dreams; long decayed, and which, now, had become a dead weight (p. 291)

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Even the Omi-Ala, long besmirched with superstition and taboo eventually loses its aura of doom. The town grows to have wider roads, bigger houses; the country ‘grows’ from military rule to democracy and the atmosphere of the novel transitions from one of innocence, to all-encompassing gloom, to hope borne on the wings of egrets.

Like all good African novels in the Achebe-Ngũgĩ tradition, The Fishermen offers a critique of the socio-political environment. Unlike some of these novels however, the novel does not place these concerns in centrepiece. The author cannot be accused of engaging in poverty porn – the latest self-stultifying label to emerge from a literary tradition accustomed to self-strangulation. The Agwu’s domestic tragedy is set against the backdrop of the historical decade 1993-2003 in Nigeria – a period of seismic irruptions in the polity – and is an allegory of it. The brothers live their lives in the shadow of historical events such as the 1993 elections; its subsequent annulment by the Babangida-led military junta; the incarceration and death of MKO Abiola (who makes an appearance in a humorous passage) and the dictator who imprisoned him, General Sani Abacha; and the return to civilian rule. There are momentary nods to the Nigerian civil war and the sectarian crises that periodically erupt in Northern Nigeria. Unruly soldiers and bribe-demanding policemen are encountered in all their shame.

One good thing about the latest crop of young writers coming on the heels of Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila and their likes is their amenability to risk-taking, even with their debut novels. I am thinking of A Igoni Barrett’s experimentation with metafiction and his Kafkaesque reinterpretation of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask in his novel Blackass which details the physical, and then social and economic transformation of a black man who suddenly wakes up one morning to find that he now has white skin, but that his ass remains “robustly black.” Taye’s Selasie’s relentless deconstruction of language in Ghana Must Go is another good example. Chigozie Obioma joins them with his innovation in narrative technique. The Fishermen merges, in its telling, two Benjamins separated by time and referential scope. Nine-year old Benjamin’s narrative present begins in 1996; while his grown-up version writes from the perspective offered by two decades of reminiscences. The older voice narrates the events while the younger lives in the flashes and the backstories. The fusion of biblical and traditional allusions, animal conceit and an effervescent élan lends to the work a mythical quality. Indeed, it reads like one long, grim folktale of fishermen and the fish they could not catch.

Obioma’s prose is sweet and hypnotizing. In his hands even the littlest observation is given heightened quality. Few novelists of African extraction can match him for vividness and lyrical power. In Abulu, the madman, a new page has been opened in the book of original and enduring characters in African literature. He is described as “wandering about naked, dirty, smelling, awash with filth, trailed by a sea of flies, dancing in the streets, picking up waste from the bins and eating it, soliloquizing aloud or conversing with invisible people in languages not of this world” (p. 92). But whenever he morphs into Abulu the seer, “he’d find himself raptured into a dream world… He subpoenaed tranquil spirits, fanned the violence of small flames and rattled the lives of many” (p. 94). The novel is full of detail that sometimes verges on the incredible. There is an overabundance of metaphors, and more than a hint of authorial self-indulgence. Each chapter is an elaborated metaphorical homage to a single character – living or figurative: Ikenna was a python; Mother was a falconer; Boja was a fungus; Hatred is a leech.

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The Fishermen is a deeply disturbing book. On another level, it is a madly disturbing book. Its pages manifest a new kind of colonialism in African literature – the colonialism of the paying audience. While the clamour against serving the West cherry-picked stories continues, perhaps the battle needs to quickly shift to salvaging nuance. The Fishermen dispenses with linguistic integrity, going as far as making apologies for traditional modes of expression, to a wondering (and doubtless enraptured) Western audience—“it was the way they learned to speak, the way our language – Igbo – was structured. For although the vocabulary for literal construction cautionary expressions such as ‘be careful’ was available, they said giri eze ji ghuo onu gi onu—count your teeth with your tongue” (p. 40). When I encountered the sentence “He’d had an accident a few days before on a motorcycle taxi” on page 227, I experienced a momentary lacuna in understanding. I had to pause and think before realization dawned—“Oh, he meant an okada!” These, and other instances highlighted in other reviews such as this one here, leave the sensitive reader with a yawning sense of loss, of being alienated from cherished emblems of sociolinguistic identity. The African and his nuance is relegated to the margins of consideration. This is a disturbing trend that simply must be reversed. Google was made by the West; there is no harm in asking them to use it.

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