Disclaimer: I wrote this note when Chennai was deluged by rains last week. At the time of writing I was not aware of what was happening apart from stray word of mouth reports that the waters were rising. Amidst worries about supplies, an unwell mother and unable to connect with anyone, it was frustrating to sit at home and do nothing. I had to do something. So, I wrote this. I am aware and thankful that I am one of the lucky ones. In writing this, I do not mean to ignore or diminish the tragedy that happened. Literature comes to our aid in the worst of times in different ways. This is one of them.
Disclaimer again: Some plot twists are discussed in this post. If you want to be surprised when you read this book, read no more.
It’s perhaps an coincidence that on the day Chennai saw the worst floods in almost a century (1 December 2015), I finished reading Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen. Of course at that time, I didn’t know it. I read, as usual, late into the night the book having hooked me from the start. (What is it that they say in creative writing classes? Was it ‘the first line should hook the reader’s attention’? I am sure they didn’t think it would tie in so neatly with the central conceit of this book.) As the hands of the bedside clock turned to tell me it’s 3.40 am and I approached the last page, I promptly went back to page 1 and started reading it again. It is that sort of a book. Two days later as I sit to write this I am house bound and waiting for more rains. It’s December 3rd, there is no internet or mobile connection but there is electricity. And so I write.
Let’s first go over the story. In the mid-90s Nigeria, four boys Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin come of age but in a way that is mysterious, unexpected and fated. Their father Mr. Agwu, a believer in Western education has great plans for his sons to become doctors, engineers, scientists and professors. The story starts when their father who works in the Central Bank of Nigeria is transferred from Akure, where they live, to Yola, a distant Northern town. When the strict disciplinarian father disappears from their life and their mother’s attention is stretched with a toddler, an infant and her shop to look after, the boys break loose. Their transgression is seemingly minor – they go fishing in the nearby Omi-Ala river. The Omi-Ala was at one time the life of Akure but as the town developed it became the dumping ground for waste and a strict no-no zone for kids.
I live near a river too, the Adyar, and till these record-breaking rains happened, didn’t think much about it. In the summer one can see the river bed and in the monsoon, it floods the banks. I’d imagine the horror of any middle-class Indian mother if she finds out that her boys were fishing in the Adyar river!
So that’s what happened. The Agwu boys went fishing in the Omi-Ala and managed to do that for six weeks without being detected. They were found out when a neighbour saw them near the river. Their father was summoned from Yola and he did what he thought would stop them from going there – he whipped them all. However, the whipping had a different reaction. Fifteen year old Ikenna became distant from the rest. Boja bore the brunt of his brother’s anger. The reason for which turned out to be a prediction made by the town’s madman and mystic, Abulu. In one of the many fishing trips, Abulu called out to Ikenna and prophesised that he will be killed by a fisherman. This he takes it to mean his brothers, since they were all fishermen.
The burden of the prophecy coupled with the whipping sets Ikenna on the edge for months. Boja who shares his room is first ignored and then banished. Obembe and Benjamin who look up to the oldest brothers are confused and hurt. Their mother watches helplessly as her eldest son becomes a stranger to her, fighting with the others, walking out and not turning up for days after a fight. The worst fights Ikenna has are with Boja whom he has taken to be the fisherman who would kill him.
Things spiral out of control making Abulu’s prophecy a self-fulfilling one. Boja commits suicide in the backyard well. The double tragedy is a huge loss for the family. Their father resigns his job and comes back to Akure. Their mother becomes consumed in her grief seeing spiders everywhere. She has to be admitted to the psychiatric centre and comes back functional but still grieving so much that she pushes away her infant daughter, Nkem, from her lap without thinking.
Their father opens a bookshop and tries to get his friend to take Obembe and Ben to Canada. Just when you think things will go back to some sort of normalcy, Obembe becomes consumed by revenge. He blames Abulu for the prophecy that killed Ikenna and disintegrated their family and plans to murder Abulu. He ropes in reluctant Ben into his plan for revenge. Ben is confused. He doesn’t want to revenge but doesn’t know how to say it for fear of alienating Obembe, his last surviving elder brother. Blood wins and Ben joins in and together they kill Abulu with fishing hooks as if he were a carp they had caught. Obembe flees to Benin; Ben refuses to leave. So he is caught and tried. Ben is ten years at the time of the trial and despite all efforts of their parents and well-wishers, he is jailed for eight years.
When he does come out, the world is different, their parents older and Nkem and David, the last two siblings have grown up.
I cried copious tears for Ben when the book ended. What is it with African writers whose first novels usually narrated by child protagonists tear at your insides like this? NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and now Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen: I see a pattern here. There is the whole Blakeian innocence versus experience struggle. The children are forced to grow up because of external circumstances which give rise to their internal struggles: this process is so painful and so vividly recorded that it leaves an indelible mark on my mind.
Coming back to the book, each chapter with some exceptions is memorably given a title from the animal or avian kingdom. These animal metaphors are used as an insight into human nature. So, Ikenna becomes a python when goes through his transformation; their father is an eagle, Ikenna is a sparrow when he is killed and his soul like a bird leaves the earth; Boja is a fungus since he lies several days in the backyard well before he is discovered; Obembe is a searchdog since he keeps finding things. David and Nkem are egrets.
The narrator of the book is an adult who is looking back at this incident in this childhood. So his voice is both young and old. That’s why I find animal metaphors interesting. At one level, kids relate to animals well. One of his brothers tells Ben that he compares everything to an animal. On another, the adult level, the speaker uses an animal as a metaphor or driving urge in the character.
The central conceit is of fishing. The brothers are fishermen. They go to catch fish but get more than they bargain for. Understandably no character is compared to a fish. Abulu is just a madman. He is not compared to any animal. Ben doesn’t accord him that dignity. Obembe and Ben kill him using fishing hooks. Their father urges them to be fishermen of the mind – catching transformational ideas that would take them out of their immediate circumstances, which though not poor were definitely limited. He also tries to ensure his sons’ future by making arrangements to get them educated in Canada.
While reading the book, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was reading a timeless tale. Some reviewers have called this book a fable/myth or a Greek tragedy.
I see why it can be a modern fable: even though it is set very clearly in a certain time in history, there is a sense – to a large part due to the prophecy and maybe the setting of Africa – that the story transcends the time it is set in. You could read it today or ten years later and it would still have that feeling. As Joseph Campbell has shown, myths all over the world have a fundamental structure, what he calls the monomyth.
A tragedy is defined as – very simply put – bad things happen to good people. Ikenna at fifteen is our tragic hero. His flaw (harmartia) is his gullibility. He believes the prophecy rather than questioning it. The incident that starts the spiral into a tragedy begins like a small tear in the fabric and quickly becomes this gaping hole. That incident is fishing. The tragic noose tightens as Ikenna starts behaving in a way that makes the prophecy come true.
The structure of the novel is cyclical: at the end Ben tells us that he was narrating how his brothers became fishermen to the court where he stands trial. Now you know why I went back to the beginning to read the book again because the first reading is an innocent and light one but the second reading, where you know the ending is the experienced, tragic and heavy one. It reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things which also had a cyclical structure.
There are several incidents in which Nigerian political leaders make an appearance. Since I am an outsider to Nigerian politics they just came across as interesting interludes. Some other reviewers have read this as a political allegory connected to Nigerian politics. So while this might be true I am unable to see this connection.
What I do see is that this is a powerful and timeless story and I was very moved by the end of it. So, if you want a book that sends you into a trance, read it.