Chigozie Obioma’s dark coming-of-age tale

Book review: A subtle, beautiful yarn of a family torn asunder

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma.  No Credit.

The Fishermen

Chigozie Obioma

In his classic memoir The African Child, Camara Laye describes his Guinean childhood, his early identification with his beloved father, affirmed along the ritualized road to manhood. But such longstanding traditions are a thing of the past in this dark coming-of-age tale from Obioma, in which a father virtually abandons his four adolescent sons when he chooses to work out of town. In their father’s absence, the inseparable band of brothers skip school, hang out with “strays” and fish in the evil, forbidden river. It is here that a depraved madman prophesies that one brother will kill another, instilling terror and initiating a string of bloody events. Soon, doubt and small acts of spite eat away at the brothers’ bond, bringing devastation upon the entire family.

Things fall apart in the manner of Chinua Achebe’s masterwork, which is to say Christianity plays a significant role. Obioma builds his tale upon Biblical stories and, as in Achebe, Christianity also symbolizes a dangerous obsession with Western values. The father’s faith brooks no tolerance for the Igbo proverbs or ancient wisdom that might offer genuine meaning for his children’s lives. And he does not spare the rod that contributes to spoiling the child.

The story is set in a Nigerian town in 1996 and is narrated by nine-year-old Ben, with innocence and insight in an almost painfully lucid voice. He makes a most unexpected African griot, an oral storyteller who passes down the history of his people. Woven into this narrative are seminal national moments. The boys fondly recall posing with M.K.O. Abiola during his hopeful 1993 campaign, then fleeing from his opponents in the deadly riots that followed. Their parents’ memories of the Biafran War arise throughout. As Obioma reveals more of the country’s hostile history, tensions between the brothers explode.

Obioma’s subtly arranged details paint a vivid picture of the times. While Ben’s family resides in a comfortable home with a deep well and a car, beyond their compound the violence is regular, and poverty and filth are the rule. Abulu, the madman who foretells the brother’s death, is no mild-mannered indigent. He is filthy inside and out, as dangerously depraved as his prophecies. At the same time, he is the embodiment and example of the corruption that sullies the nation. When it comes to Abulu, the people’s motives are suspect. They actually prevent him from receiving the psychiatric treatment he requires. They want him to remain available to predict their futures. This is a question of integrity—and Obioma, like a number of Nigerian writers, is preoccupied with how people lose it.

In The Fishermen, corruption spreads through every member of a once-loving family, leading to bitterness, sickness, murder and suicide. If we read closely, we can trace the fault to a single crazy man. The question is: Which one?

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