The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, review: Bold new voice brings brothers' dark tale to life

No surprise this accomplished debut made this year’s Man Booker Dozen

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Once upon a time in Akure, a small town in western Nigeria, there lived four brothers: 15-year-old Ikena; 14-year-old Boja;  11-year-old Obembe; and our story’s narrator, 9-year-old Benjamin. They lived with their mother and father – a strict patriarch who worked for the Central Bank of Nigeria, and wanted his sons to grow up into “civilized” and successful men (a pilot, a lawyer, a doctor and a professor) – and two infant siblings. One day the father is transferred to another branch of the bank many miles from Akure, and so he has to leave his wife and children, trusting them to behave.

Boys, however, will be boys, and no longer under their father’s watchful eye, or the threat of the whip in his hand, they take up fishing in the local river: something they know is strictly forbidden. All is innocent misbehavior until one day they encounter Abula, the town’s “vision-seeing” madman both feared and revered for his soothsaying, who predicts Ikena will die by the hand of one of his brothers.

The plot’s initial fairytale-like simplicity mutates into something darker, similar to the “metamorphosis” Ikena himself undergoes in the aftermath of Abula’s foretelling, as he transforms into a “python”: “a mercurial and hot-tempered person constantly on the prowl,” fighting for his life.

One of the many delights of The Fishermen is how deeply multi-layered the narrative is. Commonplace sibling rivalry is elevated to the realm of classical literature, where a one-time confidant comes “descending like a fallen angel” from his beloved older sibling’s side; and a proud father’s hubris brings all the weight of Aristotelian tragedy crashing down on his shoulders. Knitting it all together are the threads of an oral storytelling tradition: parents who speak in parables; superstitions and beliefs that still hold sway despite the authority of Christianity; and the overarching tension between a fate set in stone by divination versus the ability to direct the course of one’s own life through rational cool-headedness. But so too the trials faced by this lone family can be read  as an allegory of those played out on  the larger social and political stage in a  post-independence Nigeria as brother turned on brother.  

The Fishermen is a strikingly accomplished debut, hailing Chigozie Obioma as a bold new voice in Nigerian fiction. It comes as no surprise it’s made this year’s Man Booker Dozen, and I for one would be surprised and disappointed if it doesn’t make the shortlist next month.

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