It’s not always to a writer’s advantage when he or she prefaces his or her book with quotes from greater works – Chigozie Obioma’s novel, The Fishermen is not littered with such references, but there are enough to books like Things Fall Apart, Moby Dick along with quotes from Yeats, as well as various Igbo, and Ashanti proverbs, to suggest the writer has decided to save readers and critic the trouble of appraising his book, and helpfully situated himself in the appropriate part of the canon.
The main inciting incident in this novel is a curse from a neighbourhood madman on the eldest of four brothters, Ikenna, that he will one day be killed by one of his siblings but the reader will have to wait until a third into the novel to discover this. What comes before this narrative twist, is Obioma’s often very assured writing about the family’s background in Akure, Ondo state and the brothers foray into fishing, which they take up after their disciplinarian father leaves for work in Yola, Adamawa state in the farthermost north.
An Igbo family from the east of Nigeria living in Akure in the West with a father who works in the farthermost north of the country offers a broad geographic canvas that’s perhaps rare in the Nigerian novel; though much of the novel is concerned with a familial world that is closed but not insular enough to be claustrophobic. A fateful meeting with MKO Abiola on his 1993 presidential campaign and their father’s promise of resettling his boys in Canada pushes the book even wider in its geographic outlook.
Writers inadvertently present criteria on which they are judged. The plot merchant loses credit for narrative loopholes in the same way he or she deserves praise for sublime machinations. Obioma is a wordsmith and his writing achieves sonorous beauty when his word choices, lasting images and cadences align; the occasional sloppiness is nearly unforgivable because it is by someone who clearly displays refinement in language. When Abulu the madman dances in public he is said to do so to “inaudible music” when it simply means that it is imaginary, “bonfires and burning cars” are mentioned in the same sentence when the latter is an example of the former, combat uniforms of soldiers are referred to as “regalia” when the word in a military context is more likely a ceremonial dress. In the last case the auditory sense is prioritised over direct meaning. Carefully built up sentences, paragraphs and momentum are squandered in favour of anecdotal back stories. This is sometimes done to further illuminate or create context but ends up deflecting the reader’s concentration especially when it happens at crucial points in the story.
For instance, Ben, the novel’s narrator, recollects a fight between his brothers, Ikenna and Boja from which the latter suffered life-threatening injuries. After he is rushed to the hospital by his mother and a neighbour, Ben does not dwell on what he had just witnessed. Instead, “I sat in my bed, shaken by what I had seen, but it was the memory Ikenna had conjured up that disturbed me”. The interruption of a memory unrelated to the momentous occurrence jars, and rings a little untrue, surely the character would work through such a shocking incident?
When Ben discovers Ikenna’s lifeless body on the kitchen floor with a knife sticking out of it rather than grieve, he spends a chunky paragraph taking an inventory of kitchen ware. Later on at Ikenna’s funeral, the corpse right before him, Ben takes the time out to recall a time when his late brother had one of his testes kicked out of its scrotal sac while playing football. His thoughts return to the funeral for another page or two only to make way for another tale about how the family cheered Ikenna during an inter-house sprint in secondary school. This happens again at another family member’s funeral (two thirds into the novel and mentioning it would be giving away a significant part of the plot) and the subject this time is cats.
Of course there is no agreed way of processing grief, but there is no indication that such memories are particular to the character’s way of mourning. If at all this is true in real life – and I very much doubt it is – the writer should know that it deflates the emotion that he has done such a good job of building up elsewhere in the story.
Despite the frequency of references to the scatalogical, I can’t say that
Obioma resorts to such references for cheap jokes, though the many references to Abulu “urinating in the river”, “thick foliations of hair…encircling his penis” and his “faecal smell…a result of his going for long without cleaning his anus after excretion” and so on could be unsavoury depending on the taste levels of the reader. The most disturbing is a scene where Abulu has sexual intercourse with a dead woman in public. It beggars belief that Abulu is allowed to do so, uninterrupted, until he works himself into an orgasm but at what cost? Putting off a reader whose patience the writer has already stretched? If in isolation they are harmless, the cumulative effect is nausea, which is hardly the reason why anyone would take on the enterprise of writing a novel.
Fine though the praise may be, the repeated digressions throughout the story are counter dramatic, often grinding the narrative to a halt; what the impression is that Obioma has gone through arduous preparation for a meal only to keep forgetting to ignite the stove.