Chigozie Obioma’s ‘The Fishermen’ is a marvelous (but grim) parable that incorporates elements of contemporary Nigerian life with the superstitions and culture of Africa, told through the life of the Agwu family.
Namely this talks about the four elder brothers of the family, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Benjamin (the youngest of the four and the narrator here), who are growing up in a town called Akure under the dictatorial rule of General Sani Abacha in the mid-nineties. The brothers are a tight bunch who are fiercely loyal to each other and mostly do everything together. However, at the beginning of the story, their disciplinarian father has to move away on account of a transfer in his job working for the central bank leaving them almost entirely under the watch of their harried mother. And unbeknownst to any of them, it is this which inadvertently sets in motion a tragic chain of events with consequences they could have never foreseen.
Out of the need to find new ways to spend their time after school, the boys decide to start fishing on the banks of a river, Omi-Ala, which was once revered but over time has come to be associated with filth, fear and suspicion (helped in no small part by rumors propagated by colonialists pushing Christianity). Normally, the boys would never have been able to continue with this hobby if their strict father was around, but under the care of their overworked mother they are able to hide their activity for a considerable while. To ultimately disastrous effects.
On one of their visits to the accursed lake, they come across a village madman, Abulu. Abulu could have been seen as a generally comic figure, except for the fact that he is prone to make prescient prophecies which more often than not turn out to be true. So when he gives his prophecy of doom to the oldest brother, Ikenna, which involves his destruction at the hands of one of the other ‘Fishermen’ Ikenna lets it slowly consume himself from within and spirals into doom, taking his family along with him. From this point on, the story becomes an increasingly desperate account of the brothers’ disintegration as the poison of superstition proves too strong for bonds built over years of filial love. The parents can only watch on helplessly as one incident after another consumes their carefully built up family and life ebbs further away from the promises the past once held.
Obioma does a great job of ratcheting up the tension and sense of despair gradually and with plenty of references to his country’s lore. Each chapter is named after an animal or insect with the perceived characteristics of each linked to one of the characters in their predicament. The writing is both lushly descriptive, giving a great feel of a small town middle class family’s circumstances in the Nigeria of the nineties, and zippy enough to keep the reader hooked and make this a quick enough read. There are some references to MKO Abiola, a popular leader who should have won the elections back then but was not allowed to form the government and was imprisoned before dying shortly thereafter. There is a meeting conjured up between the boys and the leader – a parallel probably to the path their own lives will take thereafter, from a message of hope and unity to disillusionment and infighting. The story also shows how superstitions can devastate lives, with prophecies virtually becoming self-fulfilling purely on account of their utterance alone. The climax, though not exactly a ‘happy’ ending, is still a satisfyingly apt way to wind up events.
Part of the Booker shortlist in 2015, this is a rewarding read for anyone interested in good fiction.