Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen – and sordid tales

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Chigozie Obioma’s debut work of fiction, The Fishermen, is a work of muscular industry and prodigy, and it is also an incredibly frustrating book, more on that later.  Obioma is one powerful storyteller. In this book, things fall apart in the worst possible way, over and over again for a Nigerian family of eight, with the first four sons the chief protagonists in this story from hell. This unusual book documents the family’s free fall into one grim tragedy after the other. This family is a country song, a sad country song.  The Fishermen is a powerful and tragic coming of age book and Obioma writes as if he is looking through hell’s windows. As an aside, Obioma is incredibly well-read, his vocabulary is intimidating; that alone is enough reason to buy the book, your SAT scores will soar.

The book is a tightly woven six-pack abs of stories. The chapters sport titles that represent characters, just like the inscriptions on the mammy wagons of my childhood. Obioma is no Chinua Achebe, he is his own man, but then the book offers parallels with Achebe’s epic Things Fall Apart. Father is Okonkwo, afraid of his being, a moody, emotionally absent father, tethered Mother doing the best she can, as if a single mother. The reader comes face to face with corporal punishment so brutal it terrifies and scars children and the reader. The children endure life under a physically and emotionally abusive and absent father and a doting, albeit overwhelmed mother. Here, there are haunting reminders of Okonkwo and his relationship with his sensitive son, Nwoye (good analysis of the relationship here).

the-fishermen-chigozie-obiomaReading The Fishermen can be a grisly exercise: There is mayhem and madness everywhere, blood and gore in excruciating detail. Read as a mad man sexually defiles a female corpse in full view of onlookers. Nigeria. Fear, rage, hate, revenge are persistent characters. Yes, hatred is a leech. There is jungle justice –extra-judicial killings of suspects – in the most grisly way:

I particularly liked how she recounted an incident about a robber who was lynched in our district, how the mob knocked down the fleeing thief with a hail of stones, and how they got a car tyre and placed it around his neck. She’d emphasized the mystery behind how the mob got petrol within that fleeting moment, and how, within coughing minutes, the thief had been set ablaze. I as well as Father had listened intently as she described how the fire had engulfed the thief, the blaze prospering at the hairiest parts of the thief’s body— especially his pubic area— as it slowly consumed him. Mother described the kaleidoscope of the fire as it enveloped the thief in an aureole of flame and his jolting cry with so much vivid detail that the image of a man on fire stayed in my memory. (pp. 27-28)

There are characters jumping out of the darkness and startling the reader, living and inanimate characters, The river Omi Ala is a powerful character. Even fear is a recurring, terrifying character in the book. History lives here and it is sobering, so much of it a sad reminder of Nigeria straining at the center and at the edges with social, political and cultural anxieties.  But then, the book is thematic, with a yawning absence of any vision, nothing soars here but words. That is perhaps its brilliance, nothing soars in today’s Nigeria but words, no vision, nothing. Chief MKO Abiola shows up in a chapter that is well worth the price of the book, amusing and touching. Biafra shows up, in brief, taunting, haunting cameo appearances:

I’d heard of a war that had happened long before— a war Father often mentioned in passing. When he said the phrase “before the war,” a sentence unconnected to the events of the war would often follow, and then sometimes end with “but all these were cut short by the war.” There were times when, while chiding us for an act that smacked of laziness or weakness, he’d tell the story of his escapade as a ten-year-old boy during the war when he was left to cater for, hunt for, feed and protect his mother and younger sisters after they all took to the big Ogbuti forest to escape the invasion of our village by the Nigerian army. This was the only time he ever actually said anything that happened “during the war.” Alternatively, the phrase would be “after the war.” Then, a fresh sentence would take form, without any link to the war mentioned. (pp. 116-117).

As I read the book, the beauty of some of the prose reminded me of the soaring prose and haunting sadness of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country (read some beautiful quotes here). Powerful passages like this lie in wait for the happy reader and ambush the senses and one is forced to think about these things:

This dream fetched him much ridicule in the biting economy of 1990s Nigeria, but he swatted off the insults as if they were mere mosquitoes. He sketched a pattern for our future— a map of dreams. Ikenna was to be a doctor, although later, after Ikenna showed much fascination with planes at an early age, and encouraged by the fact that there were aviation schools in Enugu, Makurdi and Onitsha where Ikenna could learn to fly, Father changed it to pilot. Boja was to be a lawyer, and Obembe the family’s medical doctor. Although I had opted to be a veterinarian, to work in a forest or to tend animals at a zoo, anything that involved animals, Father decided I would be a professor. David, our younger brother, who was barely three in the year Father moved to Yola, was to be an engineer. A career was not readily chosen for Nkem, our one-year-old sister. Father said there was no need to decide such things for women. (pp. 25-26)

My best quote:

Mother was a falconer: The one who stood on the hills and watched, trying to stave off whatever ill she perceived was coming to her children. She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in their forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm. (pp. 97)

I read of cattle egrets and I remembered my childhood as we would break out into happy song… Leke leke, gbami leke! You can feel, hear and taste Nigeria with a feverish noisy intensity:

The roads had widened so that the sellers got pushed back many metres from the jumbled roadways, which often filled with cars and trucks. An overhead bridge had been constructed over the road on two sides. Everywhere, the cacophony of vendors crying their wares roused the silent creatures that had crept into my soul. A man dressed in a faded Manchester United jersey ran along as we stopped in the middle of the clogged traffic, banging on the car, as he attempted to shove a loaf of bread through the window near Mother’s side. She wound up the glass. In the distance beyond the nearly thousand cars that were honking and raving with impatience was a mighty semi making a slow U-turn under the overhead pedestrian bridge.  It was this vehicular dinosaur that had brought the entire traffic to a halt. (pp. 286-287).

Obioma is intense; his portrait of Abulu the mad man who lives in a truck is etched indelibly in my mind. It is beautiful language – and a searing commentary on how Nigeria treats mental illness:

Now up close and certain he would soon die, I let my eyes take an inventory of the madman. He appeared like a mighty man of old when men shredded everything they grasped with bare hands. His face was fecund with a beard that stretched from the side of his face down to his jaw. His moustache stood over his mouth as though it had been applied there by fine brush strokes of charcoal paint. His hair was dirty, long, and tangled. Thick foliations of hair also covered a large part of his chest, his wrinkled and swarthy face, the centre of his pelvis, and encircled his penis. The matrixes of his fingernails were long and taut, and in the bed beneath each plate were masses of grime and dirt. I observed that he carried on his body a variety of odours, the most noticeable of which was a faecal smell that wafted at me like a drone of flies when I drew closer to him. This smell, I thought, might have been a result of his going for long without cleaning his anus after excretion (pp. 223-224)

From cover to cover, The Fishermen unveils multiple tragedies within just one family. Still, it is a tender story in parts, shyly tucked among gripping blood-curdling chapters, a true reflcection of the juxtaposition that is life in Nigeria. Obioma loves gore and catalogues it with near-gleeful graphic unsparing detail. There is child abuse in perverse abundance; for the child in Obioma’s world, the world is a vast classroom of unrelenting terror and abuse. And there is the terrifying descent into depression and lunacy by a distraught mother. Sad, almost beautiful, is the sadness that drapes this powerful book. Obioma tackles the familiar positions on the new Christianity – the desecration of customs, institutions, and religious totems in the name of Christianity.

And this made me remember of trips to my village from the city where we lived:

Like a miracle, a host of people, almost all of whom were relatives, Nde Iku na’ ibe, some of whom I’d seen before and others whose faces merely peopled the many daguerreotypes and fading photographs tucked away in our family albums, arrived at the house within two days. They had all come from the village, Amano, a place I barely knew. We’d visited it only once, during the burial ceremony of Yee Keneolisa, an old immobile man, who was Father’s uncle. We’d travelled through a seemingly interminable road sewn between two vast stretches of thick forests until we reached a place where the great jungle shrunk into a few trees and cultivated heaps and a distributed army of scarecrows. Soon, as Father’s Peugeot negotiated the sand-filled tracks, jerking furiously, we began to meet people who knew him. These people greeted our parents and us with a boisterous effulgence of geniality. Later, dressed in black clothes with a host of others, we’d marched down in a procession to the funeral, no one speaking, but merely crying as if we had been transformed from creatures capable of making speech to ones that could only wail; this had amazed me beyond words. (p. 146)

From my perspective, The Fishermen is not a perfect book; it is bipolar, confounding the reader with its beauty – ugliness. It showcases powerful writing that is often cruelly ambushed by the whims of a clueless editor trained to wean stories of their passion and meat. Western editors should collaborate with African editors. Obioma can be quite bombastic; he likes the word “declivities” and a few other big words. I will be blunt, the dialogue was awkward and contrived; a result of clumsy attempts to explain Africans to Western readers. That grated on my nerves.

Here is a strange passage:

Locusts were forerunners: They swarmed Akure and most parts of Southern Nigeria at the beginning of rainy seasons. 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. The children would switch on bulbs or lanterns and hold bowls of water close so they could knock the insects into them or cause them to shed their wings and drown in the water. The people would gather and feast on the roasted remains of the locusts, rejoicing at the oncoming rain. (p. 128).

They are not locusts, they are termites, what does it matter, we do not eat bugs in my village, we eat irikhun! Google that! And in Nigeria, we don’t call lorries “trucks.” But then, Obioma is the sum of his experiences, he is free to use porpoises in his fiction. What he did to the Pidgin English was unnecessary and poorly done. It was contrived and rejiggered for the benefit of the Western (paying) audience. We don’t talk like this. It made for awful dialogue, an insult to Pidgin English. Here is a sample that made me reach for my cognac:

“Her pikin, Onyiladun, dey sick. As her husband come inside, she tell am make im give medicine money, but im start to beat-beat am and im pikin.” (p. 107)

Bee ni— it is so,” Iya Iyabo said. “Aderonke vex say im dey beat the sick pikin, and fear say because of im alcohol, say im go kill am, so she hit im husband with a chair.” “Eh, eh,” Mother stammered. “The man die,” Iya Iyabo said. “Im die just like that.” (p. 107)

We don’t talk like this. It goes on and on with the characters mumbling in the sort of contrived Conradian language that made Achebe call Conrad a thorough going racist and that incurred my wrath in the essay The Balance of our Stories. Thanks to the contrived language, the book gives the wrong and unintended impression that the characters speaking Pidgin English are unthinking dolts invested only in mimicry. But then, Nigeria’s rulers work hard every day to give the impression that we are not serious human beings.

The attempt at translating the language to the other in this book is relentless, we are the other faithfully italicized and explained to the other. Everything is italicized down to wrappa. And this: I almost stopped reading the book at this point upon reading Obioma’s attempt to explain beans to the West:

“I recall one Sunday afternoon when Iya Iyabo came in while we were eating black-eyed peas marinated in palm-oil sauce.” (p. 106)

So much was lost in the translation of Nigerian Standard English to a format favored by Western readers, it was not funny. Obioma badly wanted to use Nigerian voices: “What if we follow them from a distance, through corner-corner?” (p. 67) Apparently, his editors could not stomach much of that insular stuff. So they went rogue with their red pens and tried to butcher a good book. The result is a crippling loss of language and indigenous context. “Dodo” is helpfully explained in parenthesis! Fried plantains! Who does that? The language problem haunts Obioma. From my perspective, The Fishermen is a failed experiment with language. From another perspective it would be a brilliant attempt at bridging both worlds with contrived language. I understand the other’s perspective. The other is paying.

There is a God. Half-way into the book, Obioma stopped the annoying experiments with dialogue and language and things got better. Over time, the characters formed and matured as identities become distinct and unique. The Fishermen is a beautiful book, – once you survive the penury of the first few chapters and the ignorance and cultural incompetence of the editor. I learnt several new words though! A skink is a lizard, LOL!