The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma

[This is a journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

9 May 2016
Chapters 1-6 (of 18)
This appears simple at first, but I think that’s deceptive. An adult narrator, Benjamin, is writing about his teenage years in the 1990s. Obioma must be about the same age as Benjamin, telling us about his life in a small Nigerian town. I assume he’s writing about what he knows… but maybe not. As so often with novels that reach Man Booker shortlists from developing countries, this one is written by an author who has spent most of his adult life in the West. Like his compatriot Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, he has honed his craft in an American university, where he works in the literature and creative writing departments. Maybe The Fisherman is about a version of himself who didn’t make it out of Nigeria. Or maybe he will. He’s still only aged about thirteen or fourteen at this point.

The ‘fishermen’ of the title refers to Benjamin and his three older brothers, whose life become less well ordered when their father is promoted to a new job hundreds of miles away. For six weeks they become obsessed by fishing, despite the well-known dangers that people attribute to the river. It’s a superstitious town, but the boys’ sense of adventure easily outweighs stories told, as they see it, by tut-tutting old women. Their father has always been a stickler for study, insisting on the boys gaining a proper western education, and their mother tries her best to keep up the discipline. But this is a patriarchal family – the boys genuinely fear the beatings he administers with a collection of leather straps – and she hasn’t the time to check up on them. She is still breastfeeding child number six, the only sister – their father has always loved the idea of a big family – and despite his threats on his short visits every other weekend, they pay little attention to her.

So far – I’m talking about the first two or three chapters – so ordinary. The basic scenario could be from a novel set in Britain, America, any country – or at any time in the last hundred years – in which parents struggling for something better for their children find that growing boys are difficult to handle. Ben is the fourth brother, and looks up especially to his two oldest. They have always seemed a kind of unit to him but, long before we reach Chapter 5 (‘The Metamorphosis’), the oldest is starting to break up what he sees as the unsatisfactory status quo of the family. This is Ikenna, and by Chapter 6 he has isolated himself not only from his parents but from every one of his brothers.

It’s how Obioma gets here that begins to make it more engaging, and it’s to do with his interest in how stories get told. As I began reading, I decided that the style was typical of the debut novelist. Before the end of the first page I was counting off examples of figurative language that seemed self-conscious. Their father’s new job is ‘a camel-distance of more than one-thousand kilometres away.’ Their parents talk privately about the transfer letter in ‘whispering conversations like shrine priests.’ Their mother emerges from these ‘a different being. She’d acquired the gait of a wet mouse.’ All these in the space of eight lines, and I was unimpressed.

But, as the novel goes on, it becomes clear that this way of describing the world is not Obioma’s but that of his narrator, Ben. He has two languages, English and Igbo. When Ben has a conversation about it with a Yoruba boy who objects to his way of speaking, we find out that the default mode in Igbo is figurative. He describes how, growing up bilingual, he would sometimes take their mother’s colourful descriptions literally. Now, together with his own love of nature and animals, he seems unable to think any other way. We’ve seen early on how, unusually, their mother seems like a mouse. Chapter 3 is ‘The Eagle’, and the opening line explains it. ‘Father was an eagle:’ The line stands alone, ending in that colon, and in the rest of the chapter the narrator justifies his metaphor.

This is the chapter in which their father, hearing of the fishing, punishes them all. He singles out Ikenna for the severest beating, because he is the one who is in role as the father. He should be encouraging them to study for the Western-style professions he dreams of, not – he spits out the idea venomously – fishing. If they are going to be fishermen…. And he tries, vainly, to co-opt Christ’s biblical metaphor. It doesn’t work, because they will not be fishing for souls, but for prosperity and status. Language is a slippery thing in this book…

…and so is the way that things are revealed to us. Obioma hasn’t told us yet, but I’m sure that at the heart of the conflict is their father’s faith in Western values above every single aspect of the Nigerian culture of the family’s day-to-day lives. He wants Ikenna to hold these same Western values, even though the pursuit of these has taken him away from the family he says he cares for. We wonder if this is why Ikenna resents it so much. Or is he mortified that he is punished despite having already decided, perhaps acting in the paternal role his father wished, that he was going to put an end to the fishing expeditions?

We gradually find out that it’s more complicated than that. His reaction to the punishment, after their father has left on his fifteen-hour drive back to his job, seems excessive – because, I guess, that’s how Obioma wants it to seem. It comes in the next chapter, in which Ikenna is ‘The Python’ who starts to writhe out of any hold that his mother had over him. He is determined to take his revenge on the neighbour who told their mother about the fishing trips, and forces his brothers to come up with ideas. When it comes to Ben, he blurts out the idea of cutting the head off one of her chickens. This seems extreme, coming from the animal-loving Ben – and it’s only later that he explains that in a moment of maximum pressure from Ikenna, he remembered it from an old Igbo story. Ah.

But that’s the way this novel is unfolding now. Things happen, we are a little shocked or perplexed, and then the narrative back-tracks. This happens with Ikenna. After he has made his brothers help him behead one of the neighbour’s roosters, he puts himself into an ever more extreme isolation. He seems not to be their brother any more – this is in ‘Metamorphosis’ – and there seems to be no explanation for it. And then there is. Maybe. At the end of the chapter we are taken back a week or so to a fateful day. This is before Ikenna’s decision (which had first emerged as early as Chapter 3) that the fishing trips must come to an end, before the neighbour reports them, before the punishment, before the revenge killing of the rooster. One of the boys thinks that a motionless figure lying below a tree is a corpse, but he rises and faces them. And he singles Ikenna out for a bloodcurdling prediction. He is going to die ‘like a cock dies.’

Obioma does everything he can now to stretch out the horror. Some of the man’s words are lost in the noise of a passing plane, and the shouts of delight that greet it. But one of the boys has heard it and Boja, the second-born, helps Ikenna force it out of him. We realise that this must be before the estrangement between Ikenna and his favourite brother, and what happens next accounts for it. It takes two pages for them to get it out of the boy who is now sorry he admitted to hearing anything. When it comes, after more promptings and false starts, it shocks Ikenna to the core: ‘He said Ikenna, you shall die by the hands of a fisherman.’ As soon as he hears it, Ikenna turns on his brothers and the other boys. ‘He saw a vision that one of you will kill me.’ Ah. Of course, that isn’t what the man actually said – and why on earth should he believe a lunatic anyway?

We should have learned by now that there are things we haven’t been told. Chapter 6 is ‘The Madman’, and what we discover is that he is held in awe for his predictions. If he singles you out, you know that bad things will happen. As presented by Ben in his explanation – and he’s the only one telling – his predictions tend to come true. Ben even cites examples, so… what choice has a reader to do but believe him? Obioma likes to put us in the same mind-set as his characters, and the boys definitely believe it. Ikenna believes he is doomed – unless, I assume, he can make sure no ‘fisherman’ can kill him. This being Ikenna, and seeing how things have developed with him since the prediction, I’d be pretty scared if I were any of those other boys.

Time to read on, except… this is never just a story about a family of boys. Obioma clearly wants us to be thinking about things that concern everybody in a country like Nigeria, seeking its own identity in a post-colonial world. Should it embrace the knowledge and values that have allowed the West to dominate the world for centuries – in contrast to the superstitions inherent in its own culture? (And where does this leave the madman’s prediction? Are we to expect that it will come true? Or will Obioma fix it so that by seeking to avoid it Ikenna will bring it about in best Greek tragedy style?) What about the different ethnicities inside the country, which is the product of white men drawing lines on maps? The Igbo and Yoruba cultures are as different as their languages, in ways that Benjamin often touches on. Ok. But what about skin colour? Why does he mention that some of the brothers are fair-skinned like their mother, while others are dark like their father?

Now it really is time to read on.

18 May
Chapters 7-12
A mind-boggling number of events unfold as spring turns to summer – and, like the boys’ father in the TV room when his wife’s half-mad complaints get too much for him, Obioma likes to turn the volume up to maximum. Nothing is ever understated. He goes for plan B with regard to the madman’s prediction: Ikenna brings about his own death, with the added Greek-tragedy spice of ignored forebodings – if they were ever real, and not the product of hindsight – and the suicide of the brother who kills him.

The last time I wrote, I was wondering about the extent to which we should take this family tragedy as a microcosm of Nigeria itself. (A clue that there might be allegory here comes indirectly: Ben is reading a book about talking animals, which the reader has to assume is the grand-daddy of 20th Century political allegories, Animal Farm.) Some of the most striking background stories – one of which I forgot to mention last time – are to do with the political upheavals in Nigeria in the mid-1990s. A European reader like me might be forgiven for forgetting how important ‘MKO’ is. He is MKO Abiola, the popular figure who effectively won the presidential elections in 1993 only for the result to be annulled. The boys meet him before the election in 1993, rather implausibly, after they walk out of school in solidarity with Boja. They are able to talk to him as he leaves his helicopter, and… one of the boys improvises a hymn of praise about him, based on a religious song he doesn’t recognise, and end up in the local newspaper. (We find all this out when Ikenna, in ‘python’ mode, destroys the MKO calendar featuring them. It’s told as one of those high-drama back-stories.)

We find out that they had been in the newspaper again when Ikenna destroys a copy that has become another of the brothers’ family totems. At this time, in the weeks leading up to the fatal fight with Boja, he seems to want to destroy any of the family mythology that links him to his brothers. He was the hero of a rescue at the time of fighting in Akure in 1993 between (I think) government forces and supporters of MKO. A hundred people or more were killed on the streets of Akure – a big city, not the small town it seems like in Ben’s descriptions of it – but Ikenna drove his brothers in their father’s car to the compound where he was working. In all these back stories, both Ikenna and Boja are always portrayed as loving, kindly brothers who would do anything to get their younger siblings out of trouble. After Boja’s death, we find out not only that he had had to put up with the indignity of bed-wetting, but that he would always help out the much younger Ben when he was very publicly caught short at school. He would be made a laughing-stock for his brother’s sake.

So, in a way – I talked about how narrative is never simple in this novel – Obioma is creating two different stories. One is the almost unbearable present, which becomes more and more dramatic (or melodramatic) as it goes on. The other is a past when relations were good, when Ikenna wasn’t a python but a shy sparrow, and Boja wasn’t the ‘fungus’ he becomes during the chapter after he has knifed his brother. This is about lives that have gone horribly wrong.

I don’t know how much detail I need to go into. Ikenna, following the madman’s prediction, has becomes more and more obsessed with it. He stops eating properly – stops doing anything properly – and speaks to his mother with a kind of venom. He even uses the Igbo word for whore at one point…. Very early on he bans Boja from their shared room, and this is what eventually leads to the fight that escalates beyond all reason. After Ikenna has broken Boja’s nose the younger brothers go to try and find an adult to separate them – but by the time they come back Boja has disappeared and Ikenna is dead with a knife in him. This is when Boja is the fungus, and we only gradually understand the significance of the metaphor. He is polluting the well, where his drowned body has lain for four days by the time they find it. Ah.

Their father is home by now. He had been away for weeks on a training course in Ghana, all through he time when his family was falling apart. (What’s the message? Boys need their father? Clearly, but I don’t know whether Obioma is attaching a greater significance to the story than this obvious truth.) He has resigned from his job, and is there for both boys’ funerals. Ikenna’s is huge, attended by members of the family who have travelled from the tiny village Ben hardly remembers from his early childhood. Boja’s… we hear nothing of, until the third brother, Obembe, finds his ashes. No Christian burial has been allowed where superstitious people still believe that such a body would pollute the ground.

Two more big things. The complete breakdown of their mother has her committed to a psychiatric hospital for five or more weeks, and she is a shell of her former self at the end of it. Ben, narrating this in adulthood, lets us know that she will never be the same again – which isn’t surprising, given the description of the effect on her of the deaths of her two firstborn sons. In the hospital, she had been ‘tucked away as if she were a dangerous explosive material. There had been a cataclysmic explosion of her mind, and her perception of the known world had been blasted to smithereens.’ As I said, Obioma is not one for understatement. There are the smallest signs of recovery by the time another month or two have passed, but it’s slow. Their father has no resources for her, always seeing things in simple terms, and she has to begin on her recovery as best she can. He, meanwhile… puts all his savings into buying stock for a bookshop he decides to open – always that faith in the power of books – and we have to hope for the best, I suppose.

Chapter 12 sets the next hare running. Not a hare, in fact, because ‘Obembe was a searchdog.’ He is, in one particular way, his father’s son: he loves finding out everything he can from books. But books can be dangerous things, and he tells Ben the story of one of them. It’s the most famous of all Nigerian novels, Things Fall Apart, and Obembe draws his own conclusions about how he should act. In that novel, he tells Ben, Okonkwo had failed to recognise who his enemies were. He, Obembe, has not made the same mistake. The enemy who has destroyed their family is Abulu, the madman, and what he must do is kill him.

Ben isn’t convinced. And then he is. By the end of the chapter, seeing the appalling effect on all of them as their mother sees the madman as they drive through the city, ‘my heart burst like a dam and the flood of the wrongs this man had done to us broke out.’ As usual, it isn’t elegant prose… but it does the job, and Ben is soon listing the ten specific injuries Abulu has inflicted on them. Then he thinks of three more to bring it up to thirteen.

Ominous.

22 May
Chapters 13-18 – to the end
The Greek tragedy goes its way, as Greek tragedies do. Revenge becomes a theme – after the two boys really do manage to fulfil a prediction from earlier in the novel and kill Abulu, Ben finds out that his own father attempted to do the same thing. Did I mention that when he returns from a trip somewhere, their father has a badly injured eye? He says it’s the the result of a cataract operation, which nobody in the house believes because it’s so clearly a lie. He can’t even close the eye properly, and he later tells Ben the madman did it when he went to find him to avenge the deaths of his sons.

And, as in all tragedies, there are consequences. What gets them in the end is a combination of an unlucky chance and the inescapable workings of conscience. Like Macbeth – it isn’t only Greek tragedy working itself out here – Obembe finds it impossible to sleep. No matter how simple he pretends it all is, this is no children’s story of the triumph of justice. Becoming terrified, he says they must run away and that’s what he does. Ben reluctantly goes with him at first, but soon turns back with a sort of understanding that it won’t be any good. He had injured a soldier as they ran away from the murder scene by the river. The army, he is sure, will be seeking its own revenge. He’s right – a witness recognised who they were and the soldiers come looking.

But I need to rewind. For days and weeks, both before and after he has persuaded Ben to help him kill Abulu, Obembe draws little diagrams of how he might be able to do it. It’s Obioma’s reminder to the reader that these are only kids – it’s only right at the end that I realised that they are only ten and twelve years old, not in their mid-teens. The diagrams consist of matchstick figures, actually illustrated in the book, and they are childish schoolboy fantasies. The boys get as far as offering the madman food laced with rat-poison – but his sprightliness afterwards proves how hard it is going to be ever to kill him.

In the end, with the inevitability that marks most things in this book from the moment of the madman’s prediction, it’s a suggestion first made by Ikenna that they go for. I can’t remember who suggests it, or whether they remember that Ikenna first mentioned it as a possibility, but the way they will kill Abulu is with their fish-hooks. Yes, they will be fishermen. It will be horrible but, Obembe is sure, it will work. He adapts their fishing-poles and… and they go out and do it. The stink of Abulu as they get near to him becomes a detailed description over something like a page… and it ends when Ben realises that what he stinks of is death. Ah. He doesn’t spell it out, but their actions seem even more justified to them now. They will be doing the world a favour by getting rid of a pestilence.

The murder really is horrible, as the boys’ hooks tear at the man’s flesh before he careers backwards into the river to drown. It leaves them traumatised – but it is Obembe, the eldest, who really seems to feel it. Obioma doesn’t need to spell it out but he does anyway, before their father’s plans come crashing down: this isn’t going to end with Ben and his brother catching the plane to Canada with their uncle and live the life their father has always dreamt for them. (Their father has been to Lagos for their passports and visas.) It ends with Obembe disappeared who knows where and Ben, following a noisy arrest, on trial. His lawyer does not seem at all the confident figure he usually presents in the courtroom, and… the sentence Ben receives is like that other favourite of Greek tragedies, exile. In fact, he is sentenced to imprisonment until he reaches adulthood at the age of eighteen – but he is forbidden all contact with his family and the outside world. He gets smuggled letters from Obembe for a year or two, but they come to an end when, as he discovers later, the boy acting as courier dies. He is released at the age of sixteen when there is a kind of amnesty as some politician or other seeks to gain popularity.

Between 1997 and 2003, a lot has happened and none of it seems good. His mother, he now finds out, spent another year in a psychiatric hospital. His father seems old and grey, nothing like the terrifying figure of his childhood. And Nigeria… what? Things fall apart, as described in the death of MKO in prison (near the start of Ben’s imprisonment, in fact) and the day-today perils of ordinary life. The state of the roads come to represent life in general – they are a death-trap. Not only has their friend Bode been killed in a car crash – he was the man who had always helped them and who discovered Boja’s body – but that also happened to the boy who had carried Obembe’s letters. It’s a broken country.

And don’t expect any resolutions. Obembe, in an early letter that Ben reads so often he knows it by heart, promised he would go home to greet him on his release. And, three pages from the end… there he is, isn’t he? Ben thinks he sees the black shadow of a figure trying to climb into their garden – but nobody else in the family can see it. They are all looking at him, not the shadow, ‘unwilling to say a word.’ But he persists – ‘“Who is there?” I said again’ – and, at last, the figure answers. But the moment is full of ambiguities. ‘It is me, Obe, your brother’ says the figure – but, instead of offering the joy of a reunion after all these years, the narrative catapults us back to the courtroom when Ben first began to testify.

Plenty is happening there, as he begins his testimony with the opening lines of the novel – ‘We were fishermen. My brothers and I became –’ and this leads to emotional outbursts from both his parents. Ben remembers his father calming his mother – and then a ‘vision’ from the moment before he continues to speak. And it makes the ending into something very strange indeed. ‘In the darkness I saw the silhouette of a man with a rucksack walking back home the same way he’d left. He was almost home, almost within reach when the judge knocked his staff on the table three times and bellowed: “You may now proceed.”’

Tragedies don’t end with the return of the prodigal son. Still part of the same strange flashback, the last line of the novel takes us full circle: ‘I opened my eyes, cleared my throat, and started all over again.’ Whatever terrible things are happening in Nigeria aren’t going to be coming to an end any time soon.

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