READING: Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen

“They will be great!” we think as parents of newborns. “They will go on to live exceptional lives!” But sitting on our shoulder whispering in our ear is our less certain self. It may not turn out the way we would like, it says. It may not turn out at all. I’ve been thinking about broken hearts and lost dreams, since reading Chigozie Obioma’s, The Fishermen. It is impossible not to think such things having spent time between the pages of this beautiful book.

Obiama’s novel is set in the town of Akure in southwestern Nigeria during the 1990’s. It follows the fate of one family, but principally the four oldest brothers, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin. At the story’s beginning, there is a sense of hope, a sense of a change for the better. The boys are blessed when the real-life much-loved presidental candidate, MKO Abiola, showers attention on them and the reader feels as if the fate of the family and of Nigeria are filled with promise. The boys’ father is filled with promise too. “My children will be great men,” he says. Already the reader must suspect a fall for both Nigeria and for the brothers.

I thought a lot about fate during the reading of this book, about blame as well and about accidental and incidental events, which acquire greater meaning than they ought. When the father, who works for the Bank of Nigeria, is posted away from home, the boys begin secretly fishing of an afternoon in the local river, which the locals believe to be cursed. They are surprised by Abulu, a mentally ill homeless man, whose prophesies are known to come true. He says that Ikenna, the eldest brother, will be killed by a fisherman. It could have meant nothing. The brothers may have gone on into their lives and fulfil their father’s dream for them, except that Ikenna takes the prophesy to heart. In his mind, his brothers are the fishermen and he will die at their hands.

Obioma sets up his story beautifully. Already we are accustomed to the lyrical quality of his work and are in the grip of the novel’s young narrator, the youngest brother, Benjamin. Obioma makes neither too little or too much of the encounter with the homeless man and yet we know everything must change from that point on.

Benjamin, is only nine years old when the events of the story take place and Obioma is able to use his confusion and naivety to weave his tale around a small boy’s faith in his older brothers and the harsh reality which ultimately confronts him.

“Ikenna was, until recently, our beloved brother, the forerunner who shot into the world ahead of all of us and opened every door for us. He guided us, protected us and led us with a full-lit torch.”

All the while, this reader was pulled strangely by the events of the brothers’ lives too, knowing doom could be avoided by the smallest change in direction. The story has the feel of a Greek tragedy in this regard. We can see it coming, but there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Obioma is clever in that he puts us in the hands of children and, in the end, we are as helpless as the brothers.

In an interview published by the Michigan Quarterly Review, Chigozie Obioma likens the prophesy of the homeless man to the directives of the British during their occupation of Nigeria. That Nigeria, with its different tribes, should become a nation was a quintessentially British idea posited without a sense of the difficulties involved. Likewise, the homeless man is unaware of the damage his words inflict on the four brothers, as Ikena becomes more and more certain that his brothers are planning his murder. As a political criticism, this novel captures well the sense of futility which echoes long after the events which inspired it have passed.

Despite the political overtones or very possibly because of them, Obioma’s The Fisherman is a very human story, as Benjamin recounts as an adult what he saw as a child. A child at the whim of his elders is like a person at the whim of fate or belief, as we and Benjamin discover.

“I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.”

We discover this is not childish at all. We, too, are at the whim of our own beliefs and so we had better be careful lest we bring about that which we too fear the most.

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