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The Fragile Bonds of Brotherhood: A Review of ‘The Fishermen’ by Chigozie Obioma

Chigozie Obioma’s first novel, The Fishermen, is a story of childlike innocence and imagination that becomes warped by prophecy into a dark tale of tragedy and revenge. The novel is narrated by Ben, a young boy living in a small town in Western Nigeria with his three older brothers. Ben’s strict father has high hopes for his sons; they will receive a Western education and become professors, doctors or lawyers. However, when he gets transferred further away by the Central Bank of Nigeria, the boys are left in the hands of an overworked mother, too preoccupied with two young children and the running of a market stall to watch over them closely. Left unsupervised, the boys decide to become ‘fishermen’ in the fabled Omi-Ala River. The river, once sacred, has now become cursed. During one of these river trips, the young boys receive a prophecy from the local madman, Abulu. He tells Ikenna, the eldest brother, that he will die a bloody death at the hands of one of his brothers – a ‘fisherman’. Driven insane by the foretelling of the madman, Ikenna’s health slowly declines – physically, morally and spiritually – spurring on events which set Abulu’s vision in motion.

Photo by: @vitalwritersblog.

This novel comments on the playful nature of ‘fate’. In a type of chicken-and-the-egg scenario, we wonder what came first, the prophecy or the murder? In other words, would the latter have happened without the prediction? On the one hand, Obioma’s retrospective narration gives the text a tragedian style, making the unfolding events seem inevitable. Ben foreshadows often; we are always knowingly inching towards some sort of climax, building towards Ikenna’s decline. On the other hand, Ikenna’s harmartia is his gullibility – his naive acceptance of Abulu’s dark omen which causes him to mistrust and mistreat his family, provoking one brother’s retaliation. This is a very clever and ironic treatment of fate; the only reason Ikenna dies is because he is paranoid about dying.

In terms of broad themes, a lot is covered here. We could discuss violence, fatherhood, motherhood, superstition, mental illness and familial strife. In particular, we could comment on Christianity, and how it works alongside Nigerian cultures. For instance, the young boys suffer a fate similar to Cain and Abel. However what enacts this fate is the superstitions of a Yoruba man, who the mother deems demonic, setting up an interesting contrast between the two.

The novel is also very much a comment on the Western presence in Nigeria. For example, arguably the events unfold, not because of Ikenna’s inner flaw, but the father’s. His hubris is his obsession with Western standards of success, and it is this determination which takes him away from his family to work for a bank, leaving them vulnerable. Ikenna also receives the harshest treatment from the father when he discovers that the brothers aspire to mere fishermen as opposed to professionals. This disproportionate beating is to become key in sowing the seeds of Ikenna’s resentment against his brothers later on. Furthermore, Abulu’s madness is spurred on by the sounds of planes flying overhead – planes which Ben imagines are transporting passengers ‘somewhere in the Western world’. Perhaps, then, this is a comment on the fractures created in Nigeria by continuous Western intervention.

Finally, this novel unfolds against the political background of 1990s Nigeria. This becomes key in the novel, as the endurance of the brothers’ love for one another is directly tied to the fate of presidential candidate, Moshood Abiola. One day, the brothers stumble upon Abiola during one of his speeches, and inadvertently become symbols of his ‘Hope 93’ campaign. In the process, they receive a promotional calendar which acts as a metaphor for their strong bond. They believe this calendar is the key to their future; if they were to show it to government officials, they would be granted high positions in the political sphere. However, just as Abiola was unable to enact the democratic future he envisioned for Nigeria, Ikenna’s fate is also sealed; he destroys the calendar, ripping it to shreds during one of his erratic fits following Abulu’s prediction.

In summary, this is a novel in which omen enacts myth, ultimately breaking the fragile bonds of brotherhood.

Chigozie Obioma will be headlining the Africa Writes literature festival on Sunday evening at the British Library. Obioma will be discussing Igbo mythology and Greek classics, and the event will open with a staged reading of The Fishermen. Tickets are available: here.

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

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