When Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is good, it is arresting. In these moments, it’s not hard to see how this story of four Nigerian brothers in the 1990s put its nose ahead of the competition to become the only debut on this year’s Booker shortlist: its carefully paced moments of sudden and irrevocable violence rip through an often temperate narrative, offering – and you’ll forgive the alliterative assonance – pungent punctuation to what increasingly reads like a fable, an allegory of lost opportunity and squandered hopes.
Early on, the boys experience an encounter with the man they know only as “MKO”, whom the reader may or may not know better as Moshood Abiola, the ill-fated Social Democratic candidate for president during Nigeria’s controversial 1993 general election, who ran on the slogan, “How To Make Nigeria A Better Place for All” – and whose presumed victory was never announced, the candidate instead eventually finding himself in prison. The great man gives the brothers a calendar which they keep from then on as a treasured possession – its trashing is a key episode in the slow decay of their relationships – and his career is imparted dimly but deliberately as he recedes from the daily life of the children and Nigeria slides, with consequence but almost invisibly in the narrative, towards the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha.
The storyteller’s priorities lie elsewhere. Our narrator, after all, is a child. More correctly, Ben, the youngest of the four central brothers, is telling the story from a vantage point in the future, but his style is tricksily naive: there is very little hindsight inserted into his telling (thus the sketchy understanding of the political context of MKO’s career), and this more than anything else is what gives the novel its fable-like quality:
The winged insects, as small as the brown brush flies, would leap out of porous holes in the earth in a sudden invasion and converge wherever they saw light – it drew them magnetically. The people of Akure often rejoiced at the arrival of the locusts. For, rain healed the land after the dry seasons during which the inclement sun, aided by the Harmattan wind, tormented the land. […] But the rain would come down – usually on the day after the locust invasion – with a violent storm, plucking out roofs, destroying houses, drowning many and turning whole cities into strange rivers. (p. 134)
This sort of allusive style – almost showily eloquent whilst also oral and demotic – is dominant throughout. Each chapter, for instance, is named after an animal, with the creature assigned to a particular character or feature of the story (“Father was an eagle”, “Ikenna was a python”, “Hope was a tadpole”). This in particular becomes a little wearisome, and not a little pat for a story that stretches the boundaries of the parable form: despite the mythic resonances, there are no lessons to be learned here, no great moral victories are won. At the close of the novel, the characters having been ruthlessly punished for various transgressions, Ben is told by his father, “What you have done is great.” (p. 285)
Indeed, the boys’ father is in many ways the central tragic figure of the novel: an upwardly mobile member of the emerging middle class, he over-reaches his grasp by disastrously little; he punishes his boys brutally for failing to live up to his often arbitrary expectations; leaves the family for a big job in the city, returning only when it is too late to put events back on track; and, at the end, cannot see the ways in which his demands and dreams have both contributed to and been negated by the actions he endorses.
If anything, his wife is even more carefully characterised: a woman of huge heart and discipline, she tries her very best – and far harder than her would-be grander husband – to ensure a harmonious family. When she inevitably, unsupported, fails, she is more viscerally affected than anyone, and yet never loses her moral compass (the father does not congratulate his son in her earshot). “She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in the forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm,” Ben tells us in one of the novels many supple and apposite expressions of the bonds of family. (p. 103)
If I’m being cagey about the precise nature of that storm, it’s because those explosive moments of violence are best experienced without foreknowledge – they need to arrive with the same unsurprised shock that a sailor will experience the first thunderclap he half-expected. The trouble begins, however, early on, in the sort of encounter one finds in the Bible or Aesop: on one of the boys’ clandestine fishing trips (“I sweat and suyffer to send you to school to receive a Western education as civilized men,” their father rants, “but you chose instead to be […] Fish-a-men!” [p. 39), a madman tells the eldest brother, Ikenna, that he will be murdered by one of his fellow fishermen – in other words, by a sibling. This seed slowly germinates throughout the novel, needlessly but inevitably bearing bitter fruit. The senselessness of this cause only emphasises the fatalism of its effect: “we cannot flip precedence,” sighs the third of the brothers in age, Obembe. “We cannot bring forward what is behind, nor can we bring what is forward back.” (p. 197)
In this way, and despite being occasionally if only faintly over-worked, The Fishermen becomes an anti-fable, a story with all the grace notes and chord structures of a parable, but none of its codas – and certainly nothing approaching the moral certainty of its plagal cadences. The novel would be an elegy for lost hope if, figured as a tragedy from the start, it had any to begin with; as it is, it’s a valuable lesson in how unnecessarily self-defeating human beings can be, and how sad it is to watch them be so. I can quite see how this novel, which closes by calling on young Nigerians to become one of the “wool-white birds that appear in flocks after a storm”, would have been the one to give Marlon James a run for his money.