The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma | A Review | Tolu Daniel 

The Fishermen is the story of four brothers (Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin) whose lives are destroyed by an encounter with Abulu, a madman whose terrible prophecies of people in Akure, a city in south-western Nigeria where they live, have come to be held as true.

Reading through the book, few  things stood out about the writer, he had a thing for powerful first lines and his ability to take his time to explain everything with careful detailing. He’d go as far as explaining every sentence, every nuance, leaving nothing for the reader to decide about learning or not. His writing style reminded me of some of my teachers back in school – the ones who actually had the time to teach – how they would take their times to explain and re-explain, perhaps this style worked for some people back then, it didn’t work for me. It felt like the teacher wanted to burden me with needless wahala.

His metaphor play was fresh but often times they weren’t situated in the environment of the story thereby often making some nuances hard to understand. His sentences were not cluttered with unnecessary adverbs or adjectives. He was straight to the point with his  explanatory sentences. But if these points were partly strong points in the book, they could account for it’s failures too. There were points in the narrative that were a little over explained, belabored. But readers would appreciate this book for the fact that it took them on a journey and guided them through it.

On Language Appropriation

I liked how each chapter carried a piece of the story. With beginnings and endings that carried the weight of a well written short story but also retaining an insane amount of suspense to keep the readers interested in what happens next. 

However there were too many nuances in the narrative that were both eurocentric and america-centric especially in a time when there is a believe that the usage of our local languages is taking a plunge. Like the use of phrases like “First Grade or Second Grade”. 

Words that could be easily substituted for their Nigerian equivalence of Primary and Secondary School Classes. The use of college when he could have substituted it for university.  For a typical Nigerian reader, the usage of these words would be confusing because he is used to other variances of the same word. There were also other parts, like when the writer was describing certain local dishes like beans and eBa which the writer chose to describe in very colorful and confusing words. Even for a none provincial reader, this does them a disservice. 

They don’t get to have the desire to find out about what eBa is or could be via an internet search or be able to identify what marinated black eyed peas which could have been written as porridge beans or something. An excuse for these things may be the audiences the writer and his editors were gunning for.

On Characterisation

I liked how the narrator described each character, making it clear that we were seeing the story from the point of view of a singular individual whose initial part in the story wasn’t so evident. 

But if there were things I liked about it, it was how the  story encapsulated certain features in each of the characters as they grew up. Like Ben’s love for animals which showed in the first sentence for most of the chapters in the book since he was the narrator. 

But there were  certain characters whose parts  in the story didn’t get the attention they deserved, like Boja for instance, although the writer attempted to right this wrong, his character was enshrouded in mystery until the announcement of his death and the later introduction of David, his much younger brother as his incarnate. His character unlike Obembe and Ikenna’s always had to play second fiddle. I couldn’t even make out his face from the narrative. Which made me to believe based on the story that he was an hot head who liked getting his way like his older brother. 

I loved the mother’s character most of all, I believe it was the most well thought out character of the bunch. She was the embodiment of what an African mother was like. How she handled happiness, loss and grief. How she attempted to shield her kids from the things that would eventually claim them. The father, also made sense, he reminds me of Carlos Moore’s portrayal of Fela’s father in This Bitch of Life in his strictness imbued with a strange kind of love.

On Story Structure 

There were parts in the story I found overtold. Like the events which led to both Ikenna and Boja’s deaths and even after their deaths, the overtold descriptions of the mood after, which didn’t drive the narrative anywhere as far as I saw. 

I didn’t even understand the need for Abulu’s visit on the eve of Ikenna’s death and why didn’t Abulu’s self fulfilling prophecy capture Boja’s death too(maybe I missed it). Why wasn’t it important enough for inclusion, if the narrative would be overtold anyway. 

In page 136, the narrator spoke about a fear of dogs and all the animals from the cat family. I thought, this as a good instance of how the narrative was often over-told since the writer had an example in the adjoining sentences of how he’d seen leopards and tigers tear flesh from television to validate his fear of the cats but not of the dog which posed the imminent threat which he felt needed to be included in the story. Suffice to say, if I had been the editor of this story, I would have chipped and chopped off a lot of redundancies that i didn’t think moved the narrative forward or backwards. 

Also, I thought the basis upon which the tragedy of the narrative was built can be easily faulted. In the instance of ikenna’s metamorphosis, the narrator describes the characteristics of a changing teenager into adulthood and blended it with shades of paranoia. What I found curious about this was how a teenager could get that paranoid especially considering the extent of the unspoken love that existed between the brothers. 

In my experience,  prophecies are merely warnings of things to come and usually, their fore knowledge does not disrupt the flow of the “Present”. Perhaps, if the narrator had winged the prophecy and called it a curse, it would have been different. 

Also, the writer’s description of Ikenna’s metamorphosis was strangely familiar to the feeling which washes over every teenager irrespective of a doom spelling prophecy.
I have read a few narratives which I can compare to this one. Narratives like Arundathi Roy’s God of small things and Khalid Hosseini’s Kite Runner in how painstakingly detailed they both were in their imagery and characterization. What Obioma’s writing could have borrowed from both of the books cited above was a tinge of humour. Because any sad story could use humour, take Junot Diaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for instance, in it’s sad extremities, a rather similar story about death and curses. Humour was laced in almost every chapter and perhaps this was why the work has remained a masterpiece even since then. 

I liked how this writer attempted to lace the final chapter with a strong sense of relatable emotion. However, I could not relate. By the time, I got there, I was spent in deciding what was important,  the empathy which I knew the writer was gunning for?  Or the many redundancies which the over explained and over simplified text came bearing.

On Nigeria 

If I could ask the author a question, my question would be to ask why he chose to situate the political turmoils in Nigeria of the early nineties within this narrative and leave them unresolved.  
I have tried to marry the conflict in the book and the conflicts arising from Abiola’s loss of the presidential mandate of 1993 unsuccessfully but one thing which is clear is the common theme of lost promises and perhaps also of lost years. 

Also one cannot fail to mention the Boja and Ikenna rivalry, especially the story about how Boja denied Ikenna the chance to travel to Canada with their father’s friend. How after Boja was caught, Ikenna decides to stick with him to help him avoid punishment.
A fact which will be used against Boja later in the story when Ikenna began his paranoid transformation. This particular story, reminds one of the Nigeria and Biafra siblingship turned rivalry which ended with one killing the other in the Civil war of the seventies. If Obioma was conscious of this relationships, it isn’t clear.

I think the book also talked about leadership. There was a repeated enforcement of this throughout the text. When the father wanted to discipline the boys, he favored disciplining the oldest more than the youngests while always imbuing them with endless philosophical talks. 

Also, one could look at the story from the angle of the father who sires six children and leaves on a transfer to another region of the country and only visited home once in awhile. By taking up such appointment, which automatically tears him apart from his family, he commits the error most politicians are accused of. He also  reminds me somewhat of Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari, who during the campaign trail spent time throwing promises and invoking different kinds of desires in his citizens only to thereafter become president and spend majority of his time travelling different countries of the  world with the economy of the country consistently in shambles. 

The father’s inability to intervene and keep his family together until everything became impossible to gather is another way one could look at how the book attempted to classify bad leadership in Africa.

Image was culled from Google 


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