Postal Reading group
February 2022
Notes on the book The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is the author’s first novel, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. I don’t know how unusual this is, but for me it represents two things which normally indicate a difficult read: Booker prize shortlist and an African author. The fact that I did actually complete the book in a reasonable time is therefore a recommendation of sorts!

The basic story is that four brothers are growing up in a small town in Western Nigeria. When their strict father is transferred to another office and has to move away, they take advantage of his absence to go fishing at the local river. When that are found out, they have to stop, but not before Abulu, the infamous local madman had prophesied that the oldest boy will be killed by one of his own brothers. The problem is that such prophesies have a habit of coming true, and so a series of catastrophic events begins.

Having finished the book, I was struck by the standard of the author’s writing; this was arguably one of the factors which enabled me to get much further with this book, than I might initially have expected. Similarly, the family drama aspect makes for a much more interesting read than African political history. Obioma also does a good job of capturing the relationships between the four brothers, while showing readers the stark inequalities inherent in the global economic system.

The author’s style of writing is very distinctive, and uses symbolism, allusion and metaphors frequently. Some of these metaphors are truly original, if, perhaps, a little graphic: “The congested mass of humanity seethed like a tribe of maggots”. Others are less effective: “The passion we’d developed for fishing had become like liquid frozen in a bottle and could not be easily thawed”. While suggesting a certain inertia, I’m not sure if a bottle of frozen water normally suggests passion! Obioma also makes frequent use of both Yoruban and Igbo dialects. Some might say that this makes the writing more authentic, or even poetic, but I found it less effective. Another interesting feature was the author’s habit naming each chapter after an animal or insect and beginning with that as a metaphor. It’s clever and not ineffective, although some are definitely better than others. Perhaps its this original quality to the writing which recommended the book to the Booker judges.

In contrast to the standard of the writing, however, was the weak storyline. The narrative was rather disjointed, with some of the most important elements being related as ‘flashbacks’, which made it more difficult for me to follow. While there is no shortage of possible themes in the book, few of them are developed. The result is that the book fails to live up to its promise, or perhaps the hype which can surround Booker prize finalists. Without any significant storyline, the otherwise effective writing began to drag, while the relations between the four brothers seemed to descend into a whole series of arguments. While this does, perhaps, serve to demonstrate the effects of the Abulu’s prophecy, it still makes the book less interesting than it could have been. What story there is seems to be all to predictable. From the moment that the prophecy is revealed, you know that its not going to end well, while simultaneously wanting this to be the occasion when Abulu is proved wrong.

This prophecy must surely have been the central theme of the book, and it could have been an interesting one. It poses a number of philosophical questions which the book did not really explore, presenting instead a kind of inevitability to the prediction: the prophecy has been made, how could it not come true? In effect Abulu’s predictions seem to come true because people want them to. Perhaps some of the early ones were, quite coincidentally, accurate, or possibly sufficiently credulous people were fascinated by the predictions. The churches (and there was no shortage of religious groups in the town) warned against believing false prophets, yet their message seems to be one of taking seriously another set of predictions and beliefs. Who can you trust? Predestination, the nature of belief and the process by which others acquire power over us are all deeply philosophical topics which would have been fitting subjects for this book. It is a pity that they were only explored in passing.

My other difficulty with the book is the quite gratuitous violence. There are plenty of unpleasant scenes, and the author doesn’t really spare us the details. On the one hand, it may show us the harsh realities of life in Nigeria complete with poverty and political unrest, or it may simply encourage the reader to switch off. We are left with a powerful image of a lawless town, with a dangerous madman. Yet, they credit his predictions with more power than they deserve, and when he is found murdered pursue justice with a surprising vigour.

In summary, despite the obvious standard of the writing, with some original touches, I feel that this book fails to live up to its promise. Good characterization of the relationships between the four brothers descends to sibling rivalry with all too predictable results. The weak storyline and confused narration really spoil this book for me. While the author clearly has potential, in this case the failure to develop the main theme leaves me wondering if I missed the point somewhere.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler