A few weeks ago, I stopped by one of the few independent bookstores in town because . . . well, because. They’re a small shop, but in the past, they were a great stop for overstock and discount books – titles that one would have ordinarily missed because they were drowned out by the mass-hype of books by big-name authors.
They don’t get as much overstock these days, but they do make an effort to promote books that one might otherwise miss, and that’s one of the reasons I still stop by for the occasional visit.
Which brings me to The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma.
Before I start, I have to confess that this is not a book I’d have ordinarily read. I don’t know why, but most contemporary fiction fails to resonate with me. The book caught my attention, however, because I was looking for something accessible for future classroom use, and it looked to be a short read that might do the trick. With that said, I should also confess that what I found was something far more interesting and gut-wrenching than I’d ever expected.
The Fishermen is a story about a Nigerian family in 1996, and how an event that should have marked the family’s ascent proves instead to be a harbinger of its destruction. Told from the viewpoint of nine-year-old Benjamin, this is a story about his relationship with his three older brothers, Ikenna, Boja, and Obembe (there’s a younger brother, David, and infant sister, Nkem, who have minor roles), and how that fraternal bond is tested and eventually lost.
When their father, Eme Agwu, gets a work promotion that requires him to move to a neighboring city, he admonishes his sons to behave as he’d instructed them and not give their mother any trouble.
“I will call her regularly, and if I hear any bad news” — he struck his forefinger aloft to fortify his words — “I mean, any funny acts at all, I’ll give you the Guerdon for them.”
Naturally, once Eme is out of sight, the boys, led by 15 year-old Ikenna, decide to do things that they know they shouldn’t be doing, and this includes spending afternoons fishing in a nearby river. The river has a reputation of danger and evil; this makes it all the more attractive to the boys and their friends. But the boys are also aware that they’re violating certain social standards* by doing what they’re doing, so not only are the trying to hide their activities from their mother, but also from anyone who might know her. The boys resolve to give up fishing, but as luck would have it, on the last day of going to the river, they’re discovered by a family friend who reports them; as they’d feared, their mother makes that fateful call to their father, who immediately punishes the group.
(* In some parts of Africa, to be characterized as a ‘fisherman’ is akin to an urban dweller making fun of those from rural areas. For a community focused on social advancement, this is an insult with a certain amount of shame attached.)
Before this discovery (and punishment) occur, however, the boys encounter Abulu, whom they believe to be the neighborhood madman (Abulu’s back story is interesting to say the least), known for his odd and frightening “prophesies.” Upon seeing the boys, Abulu tells Ikenna that he’s fated to be killed by one of his brothers, and it’s these two events – the prophesy and the boys’ punishment – that set the stage for the tale that follows. Rather than spoil the rest (as if I would), I’ll leave it here by saying that things did not play out as I’d anticipated.
The Fishermen is a tale about dreams, love, the conflict between old ways and modernization, of fear, hate, and of revenge. Time plays an important role, too, because Obioma frequently uses Ben’s fixation on certain objects (and how they were acquired) to emphasize certain aspects of the brothers’ relationships, but I didn’t see this as an issue. If anything, one might be confused with how Obioma integrates certain elements of Nigeria’s recent history into the tale, but that’s what Google is for, to be honest.
I loved this book, and it’s certainly on my list for readings next term.