A river runs through Chigozie Obioma’s haunting debut novel, The Fisherman, the powerful story of an Igbo family, living in a Yoruba area of southern Nigeria, mostly during the troubled years of the country’s military unrest. It’s the story of four brothers (Ikenna, 15; Boja, 14; Obemba, 11; and Ben, the narrator, 9, at the beginning of the story). They have two much younger siblings, and most of the time their father works for the Central Bank of Nigeria a thousand miles away from them, in Yola, in northern Nigeria. He’s a fairly tyrannical father when he’s around, but the major problem is his absence from the family and his high expectations for his son’s careers.
In his absence, the four teenage and preteen siblings get into something that becomes much more than mischief, something that will eventually destroy their family. That’s where the river becomes important in Obioma’s mythic story: “Omi-Ala was a dreadful river: Long forsaken by the inhabitants of Akure town like a mother abandoned by her children. But it was once a pure river that supplied the earliest settlers with fish and clean drinking water. It surrounded Akure and snaked through its length and breadth. Like many such rivers in Africa, Omi-Ala was once believed to be a god; people worshipped it.” All this changed when the Europeans arrived with their religion and the river was transformed into an evil place. It is worth noting that Akure is where Obioma himself grew up, though Google Maps shows no river with that name.
Though the river has long been off bounds for the four brothers, one day when their father is away they get the idea that they should try fishing and—if they are successful—perhaps they can sell the fish for a modest profit. But “the Omi-Ala [has become] a dreadful river,” totally polluted. Worse, the town’s madman, named Abula, haunts its environs, and some weeks after the brothers four have begun fishing, there’s an altercation between them and the madman. Abula singles out Ikenna, the eldest, and spews out a string of predictions, including “Ikena, you will swim in a river of red but never rise from it again…. Ikena, you shall die like a cock dies.”
Abula’s earlier predictions about other people in Akura have largely come true—something that Ikenna fully understands. It isn’t too long before the elder brother begins believing the predictions, as his body wastes away. His mother warns him that he has “chosen to believe the visions of a madman,” i.e., it takes two to make the predictions come true. Ignore them. But it’s already too late. When Ikenna isolates himself from his brothers, they try to talk him out of his fears but with little success. For the first time the harmony of the four Agwu brothers begins to weaken. Though Ben, the narrator, speaks fondly of his older brother—romanticizing him in a highly lyrical passage in the novel—he, also, is not able to talk Ikenna out of his fears.
Then the absolute worst happens and brother turns against brother and tragedy results. All of these events are set to the background of political unrest in Nigeria, with violent schisms fighting one another, which is to say that what happens to the brothers becomes a metaphor for the disastrous late years of Nigeria’s military dictatorships, especially when Sani Abacha raped the country. The fisherman metaphor also pulls on interesting Biblical parallels. But it’s too late. The family unity is destroyed. And the parents are equally subsumed by events involving their four sons.
The Fisherman is an impressive novel, especially Obioma’s storytelling skills but it is badly flawed by one major element: the writing itself, the use of language. Purple prose abounds, as do strange sentences and phrases such as the following: “He subpoenaed tranquil spirits” or “temporal lobotomy.” Numerous others could be sited but this one wins the prize:
“I observed that he [Abulu] carried on his body a variety of odours, the most noticeable of which was a faecal smell that wafted at me like a drone of flies when I drew closer to him. This smell, I thought, might have been a result of his going for long without cleaning his anus after excretion. He reeked of sweat accumulated inside the dense growth of hair around his pubic regions and armpits. He smelt of rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus, and of bodily fluids and wastes. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear he sometimes wore. He smelt, too, of leaves, creepers, decaying mangoes by the Omi-Ala, the sand of the riverbank, and even of the water itself. He had the smell of banana trees and guava trees, of the Harmattan dust, of trashed clothes in the large bin behind the tailor’s shop, of leftover meat at the open abattoir in the town, of leftover things devoured by vultures, of used condoms from the La Room motel, of sewage water and filth, of semen from the ejaculations he’d spilled on himself every time he’d masturbated, of vaginal fluids, of dried mucus.”
I doubt if a dog’s nose could pick up so many smells, and that isn’t even the entire paragraph.
Are their no editors around any longer, no one to take a pencil to such passages and cross them out?
Such a pity to undermine such talent.
Chigozie Obioma: The Fishermen
Little, Brown, 297 pp., $26.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.