CUTBANK REVIEWS: "The Fishermen" by Chigozie Obioma

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Review by Aaron Brown

Chigozie Obioma’s widely successful debut novel, The Fishermen, is a story about brothers, their father, and the flaws within each of them. It is a novel that deceptively lures you into a plot rich in complexity—in part a coming of age story set in 1990s Nigeria, and yet also a story that is mythic, shape-shifting. What is this novel about? Is it about a group of brothers—the narrator Benjamin and his older brothers Ikenna, Boja, and Obembe—who love Mortal Kombat and World Cup soccer and have an insatiable desire to fish in the Omi-Ala River running through their village, transgressing where they have been forbidden? Or are the allegorical connections we can draw between the narrative and the tumultuous political climate in Nigeria during the decade (as is referenced many times in the novel) simply too much to be ignored? The Fishermen is all this and much more, and we must recognize and applaud the complex world Obioma has crafted before we proceed further.

At the novel’s heart, the story tracks the adventures of four adolescent brothers: the eldest, Ikenna, who is a stoic yet volatile “python,” always leading his brothers in a self-important, tragic way; Boja, a “fungus,” constantly in his older brother’s shadow whose love-tinged jealousy is the ember that sparks destructive flame later in the novel; Obembe, the “searchdog” and investigator, who always tries to get down to the truth at all costs, Dostoevskyan in his ideas; and finally, Benjamin, the narrator who remains impassioned if oddly objective as the events in his family’s life unfold. The brothers act as foils to each other, and yet it is often difficult to distinguish between them, so strong is their collective identity.

When their stern father, a middle-class banker, is relocated to another town for work and leaves behind his family, an imbalance of power results, and the boys venture forth into their town, Akure, while their mother, attending two smaller children, is often unaware of their actions. They take up, among other things, fishing in the local river, at a place in the river rumored to have a mysterious, haunting history. They are discovered, forbidden from going back, but still as boys the world over do, they choose to disobey their parents’ wishes and continue to revisit the river.

What seems like harmless transgression sets off the true narrative undercurrent of the novel: while they are fishing, Abulu—a local madman whose prophesies are revered throughout the community—is discovered sleeping by the shoreline, and in their presence, he wakes, laughs at them, dances, and tells Ikenna that “a fisherman will kill you.”

The simple prophecy causes Ikenna and his brothers to undergo a metamorphosis: suddenly mistrust seeps into the cracks between the brothers, and their actions turn from harmless to violent, rending the family apart. “Hatred is a leech,” writes Obioma through Benjamin’s voice, later in the novel, “The thing that sticks to a person’s skin; that feeds off them and drains the sap out of one’s spirit.” Here, we encounter perhaps the core truth of the novel.

A madman’s prophecy transitions the narrative from a realistic bildungsroman to something entirely mythological, tragic. Just when we think the innocence of middle-class-boys-turned-fishermen is forgotten, the theme returns; although this time, we see “fishermen” has taken on a whole new meaning. Fish are no longer their prey. Rather, their only recourse is to catch themselves, to drag themselves out of the space where “hope was a tadpole: the thing you caught and brought home with you in a can.”  It is no wonder, then, that we see the brothers decide to fashion their fishing rods into something else entirely:

He dragged the long staffs from under the bed. They were long barbed sticks with sickle-like hooks attached to their ends. The lines had been shortened so much that it seemed the hooks were pinned directly to the long sticks, making them unrecognizable. I knew it was my brother who had transformed this fishing equipment into a weapon. This thought froze me.

Only Obioma’s prose, as sweeping as it is scientific, can craft so skillful a narrative in which brothers turn against each other and families disintegrate, but a faint glimmer of hope remains, one for piecing together the fragments of familial love before the day is done. Perhaps only the ending is unsatisfying in this novel, leaving you wanting more after having experienced an incredible cast of characters and the ways, both subtle and loud, they destroy each other.

At the level of the writing, Obioma creates a sense of deceptive realism through his no-nonsense prose. Benjamin, the narrator, unfolds the story as would any pre-adolescent boy—the narrative shifting backwards and forwards, dwelling in flashbacks just as soon as it continues forward in an engrossing, associative way. We see so many similarities between Obioma and other Nigerian writers—Achebe, Okri, Adichie—in how they deal with time: time as merely another instrument of the narrative. Chronology takes a backseat to memory and its twisting, recursive strength. Rather than a logical progression, what centers the novel, what propels the reader to take in more and more of the novel, are the words of the madman Abulu, echoing in the collective mind of the brothers, gnawing at them.

At some point for the reader—and I’m sure it happens at different points for others as it did for me—there is a brilliant moment when you realize the narrative is no more episodic than it is linear. But at that moment you realize time has only a small part to play in this novel. You know what’s coming long before you see it: you experience past, present, and future brilliantly through the way Benjamin weaves his tales. And as a result, you come to the final page feeling as if you have been a part of the circle of brothers yourself, and you take a deep breath. It’s this type of weight Obioma leaves us with as we contemplate the human condition, and we know we can’t quite escape the beautiful shock of it all. Picking up another book is difficult, but moving on is the truth of all human life. At least we know this book—with its intricately universal characters—will always remain with us, long after we have sealed it shut.

About the Author:
Chigozie Obioma was born in Nigeria. He has lived in Cyprus, Turkey and now the United States where he is a professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A recipient of Hopwood Awards in fiction and poetry, his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review and Transition. His debut novel, The Fishermen, is a winner of the inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize 2015.

About the Reviewer:
Aaron Brown's prose and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Transition, Tupelo Quarterly, The Portland Review, and Ruminate, among others. He is the author of Winnower, a poetry chapbook published by Wipf & Stock, in addition to being a Pushcart Prize nominee. An MFA graduate from the University of Maryland, Aaron lives with his wife Melinda in Hutchinson, Kansas, and is an assistant professor in writing and editing at Sterling College.