The Fishermen

I don’t know how to start with this book.  It is simple and clear, painful and awkward, beautiful and intricate.  The Fisherman is the story of four brothers – the youngest nine, the oldest 15 – who use their strict father’s absence to go fishing at the forbidden local river.  The course of their lives is changed when they encounter a homeless madman, the town soothsayer, who prophesies that the oldest brother will be killed by another.  The brothers’ bond is broken, with the prediction setting off a tragic chain of events with almost mythic implications.

Chigonzie Obioma has set this story in a certain place and time – it is before the 1993 Nigerian elections, and the boys senselessly interact with the class and politics of their world.  Through Benjamin’s young eyes, a portrait of the country is drawn around the annulled presidential elections, thoughtlessly and without judgment presenting the pride and problems with Nigeria.  The dirt, the poverty, the welled water, the danger at night, the reach for a ‘white’ education – these are just facts of their lives that illustrate the country at a certain point in time.

Not that the brothers care about that: Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Ben are trying to make their own way in the world, branching out when their father is not around.  They are growing up and defining themselves away from their parents.  There may also be here an analogy for Nigeria: the major tribes moving away from British government toward their own independence together.

Instead, Abulu facilities conflict between the brothers.  The prophecy comes true simply because of its existence, it is the prediction that causes the friction as they fight and disagree over it.  But there is almost a humanitarian heart at the centre of this novel as well.  Abulu, the derilict who creates this fate for the brothers, is described in such horror-filled, vivid language.  A street-wanderer, madman and sage, homeless and alone.  Abulu causes so much damage without meaning to and lives in such filth without awareness or control.  He is a kind of voiceless character in this book, but it is a central, sympathetic role.

The evolution of their relationship toward toxicity and darkness is tracked by Ben, the youngest, the lover of animals.  He is a moth, mother is a falconer, the two youngest siblings are egrets.  Each chapter opens with a line, an analysis like this, as time passes and the poison of Abulu enters the Agwu family.  It is an original voice, detailed, unworldly.

“The rage in Ikenna’s voice frightened me.  I dropped my head to avoid looking straight at him and focused, instead, on his shadow that was sprawled on the dirt.  As I watched the actions of his actual body by the movement of his shadow on the dirt, I saw it throw what it held in its hand to the ground.  Then his shadow flowed towards Obembe, its head elongating at first and then retracting back into shape.”

And in all, with these different elements and conflicts, the innocence and horror, it is hard for me to know how to feel about this book.  On the whole, it is powerful, but that voice is tempered by Benjamin’s young hope.  It is full of pain, and beauty, and is compulsive reading toward the end, but it is almost just a child wandering along until then.  I enjoyed the story, and Ben’s analogies as a way to deal with the suffering, but somehow the reality of the story becomes measured through everything that is going on.  We amble into the past, we stay hidden under the bed in the present: this is all perfectly in character for Benjamin but alters our perspective of his world so much.  It felt like a restriction, when I wanted more.

But overall, I enjoyed this book.  It is a sad, beautiful story in a certain place and time.  There is so much here – the politics, the land, the family, the history – accompanying a wrenching story about a family’s loss.  Obioma absolutely possesses the child narrator, pitching perfect tone and voice, but the lack is that a child sees only so much when I felt there was so much more.

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