The Fishermen had much to say and ended by saying very little.
Akure, Nigeria. The Harmattan winds die out. Dust motes sift lazily to the ground. One brother stabs another, and the madman still limps around town, despised and yet hearkened. This freshly swept town, sere and cracked by the Nigerian sun’s whitewash glare, exposes little more than the unholy.
Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, a Man Booker Prize finalist, is a Cain and Abel story of Nigeria, its conflict born of a jealous prophecy told by the madman Abulu: Ikenna, you shall die by the hands of a fisherman. Ikenna, 15, is the eldest of six siblings; the four oldest of whom, brothers, are the self-made fishermen of schoolboy pastime. The Fishermen relies on this prophecy as fuel for its fire, but Obioma doesn’t stoke its flames.
The Fishermen, like Akure’s pockmarked roads and wind-whipped land, is cracked by the quickly dying heat of its conflict. It’s a delicate perfidy, the feud between Ikenna and Boja, the second brother, and one that runs deep with suspicion until we turn a keener eye to it: it’s little more than the cloak of algae scumming a well, thin as membrane and with clear, pure water a mere centimeter beneath it.
The crux of Obioma’s novel – the conflict between Ikenna and Boja – is poorly accounted for. Instead of writing it as a slow aggravation prompted by a stewing olio of deceit, jealousy, fear and superstition, Obioma wrote it such that Ikenna and Boja come off as ornery teenagers with the usual prescribed petulance wafting out of their pores. Zero to sixty, we go from the silent treatment and door slamming to knife in the chest and body in the backyard well in just a few pages. Their new brotherly hatred is written with the vagueness of “somehow”: somehow, this spat blows up into fratricide.
The weakness stems from Obioma’s chosen point of view.
Obioma tells his story through Benjamin, Ikenna and Boja’s younger brother, now grown up and recounting what his 9-year-old self witnessed. We’re given to understand only that which an outsider can tell us in hindsight, and this is a weak position (doable, but weak) to be in when the conflict is the kind only made accessible through seeing the mental degradation that brings it about. That and a surer understanding of African mythos.
Although the storied accuracy of the madman Abulu’s prophecies is meant to be grounds for the conflict between Ikenna and Boja, it’s a shaky proposition because Obioma doesn’t write it sufficiently for it to provoke our empathy, let alone for these grounds to quake in jealous rage and thrust a mortal rift between brothers. Ikenna and Boja only look weak and stupid to fall for a faulty prophecy when instead (as I hazard Obioma intended) they were meant to be caught up in a town’s nefarious ideas – and a country’s jealous civil war for dominance – all tagged with the warnings of indulging a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Obioma didn’t write the details necessary to make us feel any brotherhood with his characters, nor did he write more than passing references to the Abacha regime, the country’s north-south disparities or, apart from a hastily reminisced scene from the country’s 1967-’70 civil war, much indication of the way violence penetrated individual households. And yet he mentions each of these in background, vague points in the even more indeterminate story he wrote.
But it’s that absence of a truly justified conflict that’s the most nagging problem, like a lash caught in the eye and scuffing up the rest of the story with its persistent abrasion. More substance in writing the psychology, moth-eaten by prophecy, would have put this novel on surer ground. But The Fishermen is laid out like Nigeria’s earth in the dry season – broken up, a sandy giraffe-print grid, by the scorch of too many ideas not fully carried through.
The Fishermen · Chigozie Obioma
Back Bay Books, 2016 · 295 pages, paperback