I don’t like being overly free with the word, but I really can see ‘The Fishermen’ becoming a canonical ‘classic’ novel in the years to come. The complex treatment of nationhood, language and identity means it’s a novel that demands re-reading. For me though, the powerful imagery and presentation of family and growing up are what make this novel so compelling and memorable.
Like the best coming-of-age novels, ‘The Fishermen’ can be read on multiple levels. Take the title: the action of the story begins when four young brothers take advantage of their father’s relocation to go fishing in a disreputable part of town. There’s Tom Sawyer-style fun as the boys become devoted to this sport, celebrating each catch with their own anthem: ‘Dance all you want, fight all you will / We’ve caught you, you cannot escape / Haven’t we caught you? You certainly can’t escape / We, the fishermen have caught you. / We, the fishermen have caught you, you can’t escape!’ The song is about inevitability, cruelly suggesting that an individual cannot evade their fate. That is not why it is sung though; for the brothers, the sport is collective, identity forming and and a joyful venture into an adult world of violence, commerce and power. Their father, on the other hand, is able to reclaim this hobby and fashion it after his own aspirations: ‘I tell you that you could be a different kind of fishermen. Not the kind that fish at a filthy swamp like the Omi-Ala, but fishermen of the mind. Go-getters. Children who will dip their hands into rivers, seas, oceans of this life and become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers. Eh?’ Beyond this are the biblical connotations of the work, fishing for souls and the humble work of the apostles. The boys adapted the song from ‘a well known ditty performed by the adulterous wife of the Pastor Ishawuru, the main character of the most popular Christian soap in Akure at the time.’ The provenance is not accidental; marital strife and family trauma will become important features running through the novel. On a national level, the insidious legacy of conquest and the post-colonial struggle for autonomy and power can also be read into the song. And that’s just to start with. The whole book is richly textured and rewarding. It does not have to be read on all of these levels, but once you start, it’s hard to stop.
It is while on a fishing trip that the boys encounter a local madman. The words he speaks infect their lives, drawing them into a spiral of fear, recrimination and violence. Again, there is an invitation to read this corrupting outsider character in a multitude of ways. I’m going to withstand the temptation however, and instead focus on what is, for me, the novel’s real triumph. ‘The Fishermen’ is all about brotherly love. There are lots of books that depict how the unquestioning relationship between children (especially sons) and their parents change as they reach adolescence. It is far rarer to find a book where the focus is on requited, unrequited and subverted love between siblings. I don’t want to give spoilers, but the events are tragic, traumatic and extremely moving. The boys are forced to grow up in a very short space of time, and their increasing isolation from the family unit is in horrible contrast to, and a direct result of, their earlier idyllic unity.
‘The Fishermen’ is an ambitious and supremely confident novel. As an example, not all writers could get away with the explicit references to Yeats and Achebe, indeed, not many writers would dare. In 1958, Chinua Achebe took Yeats wonderful poem ‘The Second Coming’ and turned it into a masterpiece of world literature. Obioma stakes his own claim to the African and Western literary tradition by evoking these writers; it is a testament to his skill that such references are entirely fitting in the context of this novel. I’ve promised to avoid spoilers, but I feel no shame in quoting Yeats as a cryptic summary:
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The Falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned’
‘The Fishermen’ is an uncompromising novel that provides a wonderful, though challenging, reading experience. I suspect everyone will find something different within it; I’m sure there was much that I missed on this reading and that others will have been touched by completely different themes and references. I am confident however that this will be a favourite book for years to come. Obioma has written a tale that is new and rooted in tradition, a book that will speak to future generations and readers from around the world. It is an outstanding debut and a true classic in the making.