I’ve read enough Nigeria fiction recently to know the backstory of the country’s civil war in the late sixties, and to have some familiarity with its languages and ethnic makeup. I was glad for this knowledge reading The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma, which is the story of four brothers growing up in a small Nigerian town in the ’90s—the story, mainly, of how a group of young men destroys itself. Knowledge of Nigerian history allowed me to understand the tale not just as that of four boys but as that of a country.
The author tells the boys’ tale through the eyes of the youngest brother, nine-year-old Benjamin, a quiet observer-type who watches how his brothers start to fight after their authoritarian father is transferred to a different town for work. First the four of them test their fate by becoming fishermen. Then they are cursed by a madman’s prophecy, which becomes self-fulfilling, especially for the oldest brother. The younger follow the older like dominoes down the path to destruction.
Each chapter is named after an animal or archetype— “The Python, The Eagle, The Madman”—and I found myself wondering about the name for the book, “The Fishermen,” which is also the name of the first chapter. Fishermen depend on skill, but also luck, chance, fate, and waiting to see what comes along. The boys all have skill, and are supposed to grow up to bright futures, according to their father who “sketched a pattern for our future—a map of dreams. Ikenna was to be a doctor…Boja was to be a lawyer, and Obembe the family’s medical doctor. Although I had opted to be a veterinarian…father decided I would be a professor.” But what fate brings them is mostly tragedy and disaster that it feels no skill could avoid.
Obioma, through his richly detailed, intense prose style, conveys that fate, chance, myth, archetypes, spirits and evil winds shape these characters’ lives. He burrows into descriptions, amplifies them, makes the familiar strange and meaningful. For example the boys go out to see a sports game at a bar and Benjamin describes that,
“One man smelt of candle wax, another smelt of old clothes, another of animal flesh and blood, another of dried paint, another of petrol, and one, of sheet metal.”
The crowd could have just smelled bad, but by imbuing each man with his own scent, Obioma makes it a gathering of demons or spirits, men yoked to petrol and candle wax, a scene from hell.
Or, in a climactic scene when the two oldest brothers are fighting, Benjamin mentions a pregnant goat
“crouched near the gate, bleating with its tongue unfurled form its mouth like adhesive tape unrolled from its spool. All around its dark, heavy and reeking body were small black pods of its faeces, some squashed into brown pus-like paste and others coagulated in tows, threes and multiples.”
The goat is incidental, but the insistence of the description brings it to center stage. The pregnancy signals the future, the shit is tea leaves we’re supposed to be reading.
Here’s a last description, from the chapter “The Madman” just to give the full sense of the wonderful power of Obioma’s images:
He was robed from head to foot in filth. As he rose spryly to stand, some of the filth rose with him, while some was left in patches on the ground. He had a fresh scar on his face just below his chin, and his back was caked with a dripping mess from some dead mango in a state of putrefaction. His lips were dried and cracked. His hair was unkempt; it stretched like tendrils, giving him the appearance of a Rastafarian. His teeth, most of which were blackened as if singed, reminded me of fire-blowing gypsies and circus players who blew fire from their mouths and probably, I thought, burned their teeth. The man lay bare before our eyes, stark naked except for a shred of rage which hung loosely from his shoulder down to his waist; his pubic region was covered with a dense foliage of hair in the midst of which his veiny penis hung limply like trouser rope. His legs were bursting with varicose veins.
This madman with his powerful prophecies is supposed to be the British, whose vision created Nigeria.