“In a broken nest, there are no whole eggs” says a Chinese proverb I came across in a devotional I paused to read before finishing the last few pages of The Fishermen. The proverb seemed to supply an answer to a nagging question since I met Abulu, the madman and the conflict catalyst, in the novel. I must confess that I bought the novel in the third week of December 2015 and marked it for reading in 2016, but a tempting first chapter lured me and I found myself flipping its pages till my eyes hit the last word.
Obioma darted the pupil of the bull’s eye with his debut novel. From the very first page, he sets the reader afloat on his stream of overwhelming narrative; resonating metaphors, exquisite style, explicitly fluid language, tactful finesse, rich symbolism and resounding thematic concerns. He leaves the reader in no doubt about his capacity to deliver a well embellished story.
“We were fishermen: Omi-Ala was a dreadful river: Father was an eagle: Ikenna was a python: Ikenna was undergoing a metamorphosis: Abulu was a madman: Mother was a falconer: Locusts were forerunners: Ikenna was a sparrow: Boja was a fungus: Spiders were beasts of grief: Obembe was a searchdog: Hatred is a leech: But Abulu was a leviathan: Hope was a tadpole: My brother and I were roosters: I, Benjamin, was a moth: David and Nkem were egrets:” Summarily put, the first lines of every chapter adroitly tying the major characters to fitting fauna metaphors, while stylishly recounting the story when gathered together as seen above. Set in the South-Western town of Akure, most of the events in the story were captured within the Span of January to December of 1996. The novel chronicles the childhood experiences of four brothers, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin, who referred to themselves as the fishermen after successfully fishing a minute quantity of fish in the dreaded Omi-Ala river, however, their mirthful tale would be changed to that of woes as they come across Abulu the madman, who would prophesy calamity upon the fishermen culminating in the gruesome deaths of the first two fishermen and the near breakdown of the Agwu family. The surviving two fishermen then determinedly eliminate the madman with their fishing hooks to avenge the death of their brothers brought about by his evil prophecy and to rid their community of impending catastrophes that could be sourced from the mouth of Abulu.
Using a portion of the skeleton of Nigeria’s history – Military junta of IBB, unjustly annulled 1993 elections, General Sani Abacha’s dictatorship days to the shores of the fourth republic – Obioma weaves his story and includes M.K.O Abiola, Kudirat Abiola, Rueben Abati among others, not just as characters in the narrative, but archetypal symbols as well.
No third eye will be required to speculate that the author drew inspiration from two main Bibles, which he freely alludes to: The Holy Bible, from which, I guess, the author derived his title, although ironically employed. ‘Then one day Ikenna said to Obembe and me: “Follow us and we shall make you fishermen” – And we followed’, page 18. This is a replica of a statement Jesus made to some of his first disciples and they became fishers of men, however, the fishermen in Obioma’s novel turned out to be murderers of men owing to Abulu’s evil prophecy which destroyed the bond of harmony shared among the four fishermen. Benjamin, the central character and also the raconteur, Joins Obembe in the quest to obliterate Abulu from the earth’s surface, an action for which he would solely pay the price as a sacrificial lamb for his family, thus saving his society. The second bible is the bible of Nigerian literature – Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart – of which Boja and Ikenna were reminiscent of Okonkwo and his folks who fell apart because “there was no unity among them” , according to Boja the searchdog and the refinery of knowledge in the novel. The abundant local colour adds to the superstitions and references to gods and goddesses to it a modern African outlook. Little wonder, the NEW YORK TIMES REVIEW referred to the author as “the heir to Chinua Achebe.”
Abulu, the self-conflicting character, is a symbol of a putrefying polity of Nigeria: A country of diverse cultures and religions that have consistently refused to blend, instead, they wage wars among themselves. He represents the ideology of the common man which can only be killed in a storm in order to pave way for the pure white egrets to emerge. “ He (Abulu) smelt of rotten food, and unhealed wounds, and pus, and of bodily fluids and wastes… of the Harmattan dust… He smelt of unknown things, of strange elements . He smelt of death.” Pages 229-230. Abulu was a mad man who sometimes prophesied the good, the bad and more of the ugly. He was a leviathan (a massive bloc of corruption and vices) who can not easily be killed. Just before we condemn Abulu, or even name him the antagonist, we must also know that he was a victim of circumstance, of a broken home and of poverty, leading to his helpless madness. Ikenna, like Boja, and many others were also victims of the ripple effect of Abulu’s madness which would not have happened in the first place had Abulu’s father not eloped with an Austrian while on pilgrimage in Israel. Abulu’s father broke the nest so the eggs were crushed. The sorrow that befell Agwu’s family too may not have occurred if he had moved with his family to Yola when he was transferred. I am however consoled by the emergence of the egrets; it offers a ray of hope, albeit a thin one if only hope was a tadpole.
The writer has, in my opinion, not fully purged himself of ethnic sentiments as he feels –through the narrator- that “Yola was a volatile city with a history of frequent large-scale violence especially against our tribe – Igbo.” Anyone living in the North understands that the first target of any violent act are non-muslims and not directly Igbos, besides, Yola town was very peaceful in the 80s and 90s. Adichie probably has the same perception that the North is largely anti-Igbo. It’s likely in the same spirit that Gowon was vilified even in The Fishermen “He berated Gowon, a man he had grown to hate …who killed very many women during the Nigerian Civil war… that Idiot… the greatest enemy of Nigeria.”It is little wonder then that no Northern character in the novel was found commendable. This is now the time, more than ever before for Nigerians to reflect oneness in their art and all facets of live.
The fishermen is also imbued with large pockets of humour and emotions containing vivid and almost palpable imagery that will leave indelible prints in the minds of its readers. It is a page-turner. Be sure do do your chores before reading it, if not you may not do them until you finish it.
Book Title: The Fishermen
Author: Chigozie Obioma
Genre: Prose fiction
No. of Pages: 301
By Bizuum Yadok
Bizuum Yadok is a teacher, poet and social commentator. He has short stories, articles, and academic papers published in different newspapers, journals and magazines across Nigeria and beyond. Bizuum is the author of King of the Jungle and Echoes of the Plateau