Before picking up this novel, the only writing to come out of Nigeria I had ever read were emails letting me know I had won $3,000,000 and asking me for my bank PIN number. I knew little about the country apart from a vague knowledge of past political turmoil and more recently, the fundamentalist jihadi group, Boko Haram.
Fortunately, Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma is a meticulously evocative and beautifully visual writer. My paucity of knowledge made no difference. I am now intensely intrigued by the tumultuous, barbaric country and its people.
The Fishermen is a story about four brothers in the town of Akure who secretly go fishing in a local river when their father is away working in another town. The father has high expectations of his four sons and faith that western education will deliver his expectations. He leaves behind the four brothers as well as another much younger son and baby daughter with their mother who also owns a shop at the local market.
One day when out fishing, they encounter a madman, Abulu, whose prescient rantings are believed by some to be prophetic. He predicts that Ikenna, the eldest, will be murdered by another brother. This sets off a chain of devastating events wrapped up in violence and brutality.
The story is set against political upheaval in Nigeria in the 1990s, and the violence the four boys act out mirrors the unrest and the brutality of the dictatorship that forced itself on the country at that time. The graphic descriptions of poverty and filth, rage and anger, unbridled savagery, madness and grief are contrasted by Obioma so starkly against the beauty of the Igbo language, the intense love among the family, their strong Christian faith, the sense of community, earthy, traditional food and other fascinating aspects of culture.
As a westerner, it was almost impossible for me to read the scene about a man having sex with a woman’s corpse in public while some witnesses argue that since the woman is dead he is doing no harm. Far easier to understand is the superstition that is entrenched in the ancient culture. The mother, a devout Christian, clicks her fingers above her head to ward off evil. They hold firm to an Igbo belief in a chi, a personal god, as well as a Christian god. Out of superstition, they will not bury the dead body of a person who has committed suicide.
The Fishermen is a heartbreaking book to read yet so beautifully written it is impossible to put down. A stunning debut novel from Chigozie Obioma.
Chigozie Obioma will be at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival 7 to 9 August.