by Sabo Kpade 

Prefacing a book or the chapters within with proverbs and quotes could be a way of paying homage or unifying its themes. The Fishermen is not littered with them but the references to great works (Things Fall Apart, Moby Dick) and quotes from Yeats and Igbo and Ashanti proverbs soon come to seem as literary book ends, as though the writer has decided to save readers and the critics the trouble of appraisal by situating his work in a revered canon.

ss_required_reading_the_fishermen_chigozie_obioma_2000x2500The Fishermen is narrated by Ben and it is chiefly about his older brothers Ikenna, Boja and Obembe. He is the youngest of the lot, now in his thirties recalling events that tore his family apart when he was eight. The main inciting incident is a curse from a neighbourhood madman on Ikenna the eldest 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 are some very assured writing in the opening pages about the family’s background in Akure, Ondo state and the brothers’ foray into fishing which they took up when their disciplinarian of a 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 are broad geographical positioning even for a Nigerian novel. But the subject here is localised to the family, a closed world 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 abroad gives it a wider outlook and signposts the period in which it is set.

Writers inadvertently present the terms on which they’re to be 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. This also makes it easy to flag up the sloppy parts. A neighbour’s noisy lorry is described as “unnecessary noise” when surely the writer means “disturbance” since to the owner it is necessary given that he has the need for his vehicle however rickety. 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, auditory stimulation is prioritised over direct meaning.

Time and again, 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 only succeeds in deflecting the reader’s concentration especially when it happens at crucial points in the story. For instance, Ben recollects a fight between 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”. No Ben, you have just had a bad experience and maybe you should work through it.

Then 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.

I’m not suggesting a universal standard for bereavement. But if the rather unusual approach to grief is not a characteristic tic then why is it there? If at all this is true in real life the writer should know that it deflates the emotion when he has done a good job of building it up. Perhaps it is meant to simulate a slow grasp of trauma, the mind of a child still too nascent for the weight of death. It’s either that or Ben has an undiagnosed case of Attention Deficit Disorder which the author would like to keep under wraps.

Resorting to the scatological is often a desperate attempt to earn cheap jokes. This is not the aim in The Fishermen 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 woman’s corpse in public. It beggars belief that Abulu is allowed to do so, uninterrupted, until he works himself into an orgasm. If this is so, then 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 reaction the writer would like to inspire in his reader.

The repeated digressions are counter dramatic for they grind each narrative thrust to a halt. So what we get here is not just the pretensions of a slow burner but the pressing impression that Obioma has gone through arduous preparation for a meal only to keep forgetting to ignite the stove.

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Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost. His story Chibok has been short listed for the London Short Prize 2015. You can find him on Twitter at @Sabo_Kpade

This feature was edited by Media Diversified’s Arts and Culture editor Tara John. To pitch an article, review or feature please contact Tara@mediadiversified.org

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