Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is the second of the three debut novels on this year’s Man Booker longlist, alongside The Chimes and Did You Ever Have a Family. In very different ways to The Chimes, this is also a book that speaks its writer’s newness – both in energy and power, with which this book is redolent, and also in its slight overreach. Unlike Smaill in The Chimes, Obioma controls his pacing expertly, but what he doesn’t quite pull off is the master narrative that I think he was reaching for. That said, as a book about the tragedy of lost promise (both of individuals and nations), this dark tale has a lot to say, and says it with a facility that grips tight and holds on to the final chapter.
The Fishermen is the story of the four elder sons of the Agwus – Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and the narrator, Benjamin (Ben). Mr Agwu is a bank clerk in the smallish Nigerian town of Akure. He is a proud man, a strict man, a man of ambition, with visions of a large family of high-achieving sons to follow him. As the novel opens, Mr Agwu has just discovered that he has been transferred by the bank to the northern town of Yola, “a camel distance of more than one thousand kilometres away”. It is this event that serves as the primary catalyst for all the disintegration that follows, which lays waste to not just Agwu’sdreams, but to the lives of his family members.
This is a novel that mingles a fairly traditional family saga model of storytelling, from a decidedly British mould, with African oral folklore narrativity, and throws in a very perceptible amount of Greek tragedy for good measure. This mostly works, but where it somewhat fails to carry is when Obioma asks this bitter, powerful family drama to stand in for broader ideas about the hubris, hope and ultimate undoing of Nigeria herself. The bigger story is there, and there are moments of heart-stopping congruence where the family catastrophe and the national catastrophe coalesce; but when Obioma tries to make the Agwus, and the cast of supporting characters surrounding them, represent a national journey, he sometimes overplays his hand, and the novel flags accordingly.
In essence, the story of The Fishermen is straightforward. After Mr Agwu’s departure for Yola, the four brothers, revelling in the relaxation of strict parental control while their mother is busy with her work and their two littlest siblings, get themselves into some mischief. After a few window-breaking incidents playing street football, they decide they’re going to try fishing at the local river.
This seemingly harmless activity is loaded with red flags in the text, so there’s no chance the reader will miss its significance. In going fishing at the river, the brothers are defying paternal authority, they are flirting with dark, dangerous, murky and filthy waters. Obioma, who has a toe-curlingly potent turn of phrase when it comes to describing foul things, drives this home when Ben talks about the products of their fishing. Everything smells, slips, slimes, decays, and all with remarkable rapidity.
In one of their trips to the river, the boys encounter the local madman, Abulu. The backstory of this character is repugnant on many levels, and Abulu himself is more a subject for horror and avoidance than pity, despite the fact that his life is undeniably pitiable. Injured severely in a car accident while attempting to steal, Abulu now lives in a dimly-lit world of shadows and portents, and has earned a reputation for prophecy that is both always dire, and always accurate.
Abulu is a figure of doom and feculence. Indeed, Obioma goes to extreme lengths to underline his degeneration, from the page-long description of the rotted material clinging to Abulu’s back to the horrific scene in which the madman defiles the corpse of a newly-dead woman while shocked observers debate whether they should intervene. In Abulu, Obioma achieves the portrait of a terrifyingly disturbing visionary.
When Abulu meets the four brothers, he prophesies one of the oldest tragedian plots in the world – that the eldest son Ikenna, at that time almost 15, will be killed by one of his brothers.
The inevitable and fated fall of the Agwus is telegraphed heavily in Ben’s oscillating adult- and child’s-eye views. Like in all great tragedies, there are multiple pivot moments where a very slight variation in events would ward off disaster, and yet disaster seems, at the same time, impossible to avoid. The scent of Oedipus hangs heavily in this novel. This is not because of the relationship between Mrs Agwu and her sons (which is typically affectionate and conflictual in a way that would be quite at home in a novel set in suburban London), but because, like Oedipus, once Ikenna hears the prophecy spoken by the madman Abulu, every effort that he makes to escape the evil prediction only winds him closer to its fulfilment.
The winding in of Ikenna’s mental disintegration with the story of Abulu (already the endpoint of degeneracy) and the story of the corruption, violence and state-level failure of the nation of Nigeria is carried off with varying levels of success in this book.
Obioma’s strong suit is his vivid, chemical knack for description of the awful; his scatological flair is deployed to underline moral and spiritual decay in blood, slime, rotting food, urine, viscera, and whatObioma terms, in an odd primness, “excreta”. There are very few pages, and no chapters, in this book that don’t powerfully convey at least one thing that reads like a disgusting, gorge-rising smell. Obiomadoesn’t appear to be equating rot and bodily fluids with gritty reality so much as using them as a continual symbol for human frailty and human failure; it’s a fairly depressing view of the world, but one that he makes a solid textual argument for employing.
The weaker aspect of this book, to my mind, is the undeveloped larger themes that Obioma clearly wants the Agwu family tragedy to reflect. For readers not well-versed in Nigerian history, too much is assumed; the subtleties are too subtle, and where sledgehammers are used to point out connections, they are too brutal, smashing the analogy flat. Of course, the book does not have to be a commentary on Nigeria’s failures; it can be (and is) an excellent, if bleak, family tragedy, and that is more than enough for a very good novel. Given, however, that Obioma himself has written about his desire to write the story of modern Nigeria in this book, I think it’s reasonable to say that he hasn’t quite achieved his ends here.
This is, nonetheless, a powerful, tightly-controlled, and in many ways mesmerising book; it’s startlingly mature for a debut, and it shows a talent that will hopefully continue to grow. I think it stands a good chance of shortlisting for the Man Booker, and deservedly so.