The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Genre: Literacy fiction; Tragedy
Content warning: graphic depictions of violence and suicide; nudity; domestic violence; sexual assault
The Fishermen (2015, 304 pages) is the debut novel by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma. The novel received widespread critical acclaim when it was first published and was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and won several other book awards. Set in the 1990s, the novel is narrated by Benjamin, the fourth eldest in a middle-class family of eight in Akure, a city in south-western Nigeria. The novel recounts the events surrounding the 9 year old Benjamin and his three older brothers’ fateful decision to fish in the polluted and forbidden Omi-Ala river near their family’s compound: “Like many such rivers in Africa, Omi-Ala was once believed to be a god; people worshipped it ...[but] the people, now largely Christian, began to see it as an evil place. A cradle besmeared.”
The novel begins in January 1996, a few months after the boys’ father, Mr. Agwu, tells the family that he has accepted a job transfer to Yola, a city in northern Nigeria, over 1,000 kilometers away. Overwhelmed by her responsibilities as a now-single working mother raising six children, Mrs. Agwu is unaware that her four eldest children have been fishing in the Omi-Ala after school, until a neighbor tells her. When their father returns home on one of his sporadic weekend visits and hears about the boys fishing, he beats all four brothers for their “barbarous act”. Mr. Agwu’s anger stems from his hubris concerning acceptable behavior for his children and the risk of anything interfering with his plans for the four boys: “My children will be great men…they will be lawyers, doctors, engineers”.
Unfortunately, Mr. Agwu’s warning has come too late; the threads of fate had already started to unravel. On one of the days when the boys are returning home from the river, they come across the madman and prophet, Abulu, who warns Ikenna, the oldest brother that: “[Y]ou will die like a cock dies.” However, Abulu’s most shocking prophecy is that Ikenna will be killed by a fisherman. After hearing the prophecy, Ikenna withdraws from his family, particularly his brothers, becomes very irritable and develops a strained relationship with Boja, the second eldest and Ikenna’s closest brother. After enduring an increasingly angry and combative Ikenna, who won’t even allow Boja to stay in their shared bedroom, Boja tells Ikenna: “None of us will kill you. We are not – Ike – we are not even real fishermen. He said a fisherman will kill you. We are not even real fishermen.” But Ikenna’s fate has been sealed and he is killed by one of his brothers. The remainder of the novel relates the fallout from Ikenna’s murder and how it affects the lives of the other three brothers as well as their parents, completely ripping the family apart.
The Fishermen is the latest book that my book club read, so I got a chance to really delve into the novel’s themes, plots and characters with the other book club members. One of the first things we discussed was attempting to pin down the book’s genre. Some reviewers refer to The Fishermen as a bildungsroman, or a coming of age story, because the novel is an unusual mix of narration from an adult Benjamin and first-person narrative from the 9-year old Benjamin. However, the most important and pivotal scenes from the novel are told by a young Benjamin, with little to no introspection from the adult Ben on how Ikenna’s murder affected him or members of his family in the long-term. Instead, the book reads like a Greek tragedy, where no matter what actions are taken (or not taken) by the protagonist, disaster will happen often through a combination of personal failings and circumstances outside the character’s control. Obioma confirmsthis understanding of The Fishermen, when he declares that the novel is “an Igbo version of a tragedy”. This is an important point because it helps the reader to better understand some of the novel’s most frustrating scenes, for example, when Ikenna believes unwaveringly in the rantings of a madman over his brothers’ loving entreaties that they would never do anything to harm him.
I listened to the audio version of The Fisherman and I loved Chukwudi Iwuji’s narration and more generally, the use of three languages – English, Igbo and Yoruba – to convey characters’ feelings. The boys’ parents mostly spoke English at home, but during emotionally charged scenes, the parents would slip into Igbo: ‘[I]t was…the way our language – Igbo – was structured, for although the vocabulary for literal construction for cautionary expressions such as ‘be careful’ was available, they said, ‘Jiri eze gi ghuo gi onu’ – Count your teeth with your tongue.” Obioma’s love of language is also evident in the very rich detail he gives readers. Some reviewers found this superfluous description tiresome, but I loved it. Perhaps my love of Obioma’s colorful descriptions come from my early introduction to and love of Charles Dickens, who also uses thick description and detailed character profiles in his novels.
Another thing I loved about The Fishermen is Obioma’s use of extended metaphors at the start of each chapter, which is reminiscent of Jamaican oral storytelling traditions, which are in turn, rooted in the West African tradition. These metaphors served as a signpost informing readers where the chapter was headed and created vivid images and associations that made each character more memorable. For example, in chapter 3 “the eagle”, when Benjamin compares his father to an eagle: “Father was an eagle, the mighty bird that planted his nest high above the rest of his peers, hovering and watching over his young eagles, the way a king guards his throne.”
Additionally, I liked how Obioma weaved Nigerian politics into the story and created parallels between what was happening in the country to what has happening within the Agwu household. In the novel, the boys meet MKO Abiola, an actual politician and wealthy businessman who ran for the Nigerian presidency in 1993 on the campaign platform, “Hope ’93: Farewell to Poverty.” M.K.O’s candidacy was a very hopeful time in Nigerian politics, as his support cut across geo-political, ethnic and religious cleavages that had long-divided the country. M.K.O.’s election was unprecedented and historic in many other ways as well, for instance, the 1993 elections were largely considered free and fair, an impressive feat in a country that had been ruled by a military dictatorship for 27 of the 33 years since the country’s independence from the U.K. But, just like the Nigerian tragedy that unfolded after M.K.O.’s election results were annulled, plunging the country into a political crisis and another military dictatorship; we learn that an equally tragic chain of events would sever the close fraternal bonds that existed among the four brothers.
The Fishermen also had some serious flaws, for example, the novel was difficult to follow at times as the narrative switched back and forth between the prepubescent Benjamin and the adult Benjamin’s point of view. When these flashbacks occurred, it caused problems with the plot’s continuity, for instance, we are told early in the novel that Ikenna had started to distance himself from his brothers, but we do not learn the reason why until a few chapters later. Understandably, Obioma wants to build the novel’s suspense but because of the switching back and forth, there were a few places in the book where characters knew things that they should not have known at that particular time in the story.
Another shortcoming of The Fishermen is that Obioma leaves some huge narrative gaps in the story without giving the reader enough information to fill these gaps his or her self. For example, there is a fairly large age gap between Benjamin and his younger brother David, which is interesting because the first four boys are very close in age, as are the last two children, so it would have been nice to know what the story was there, for example, did the boys’ parents have marital problems during this time? An answer to this question would help explain Mr. Agwu’s decision to take a job so far away from his family. Something else I wished Obioma had discussed is why Mr. Agwu did not answer his wife’s repeated calls when he was in Yola. After a particularly bad argument with Ikenna, Mrs. Agwu tried calling Mr. Agwu multiples times throughout the night, but he did not answer. And, as one book club member pointed out, if a husband and father is away from his wife and six children for long periods of time, wouldn’t he call his family every night to check in on them? Additionally, we learn about Mr. Agwu’s background, but we learn very little about Mrs. Agwu. In other words, this is an extremely male-centered book and the one notable female character, Mrs. Agwu, is underdeveloped and lacks agency.
The Fishermen is not the first book I have read that is based in Nigeria or written by a Nigerian author or about a tumultuous childhood punctuated by familial tragedy and political unrest, yet, I have not read a novel quite like The Fishermen. Some reviewers have compared The Fishermen to another famous book written by a Nigerian author, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. But, having read both books, I find that there are only a few superficial similarities between The Fishermen and Things Fall Apart. For instance, both books explore the breakdown of familial bonds against a backdrop of political upheaval but for me, that is where the similarities end. I would describe The Fishermen as a story about brothers and the inevitably of fate whereas Things Fall Apart is about the effects of European colonialization on a father-son relationship and on traditional life in Nigeria.
Overall, I give The Fishermen 4 out of 5 stars. I find the novel engaging, textually rich and an ambitious debut novel by a talented author. I highly recommend it.