There is Tolstoy and Chekhov. The impressionists who depict surroundings from what they appear and not necessarily how they are. Tolstoy and Chekhov pen beautiful images of a charmed Russia in melodious prose.
Reading them is like holding onto a railing up a lush Russian valley on a rainy afternoon; inhaling the scent of green grass in the undulating terrain.
It is like relishing in the delightful promise of being home; with the accompanying excitement and possibilities of new things in a familiar place.
And then there is Dostoevsky and Conrad who take us to new but unfamiliar places, deeper than the superficial, outer surfaces; into the dark chasms of the human heart described by the English critic James Wood as a place where “nothing is entirely recognisable, everything seems to have been burnt out of recognition...”
In this second category, with prose that is confident in swagger but dark and howling like a restless jackal, we find The Fishermen, the debut novel by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma.
Written in edgy and masterfully taut prose, it is despairing, satirical, compassionate, prophetic and angry. If this was comedy, it would not be funny but dark and sprawling—grimacing, gloomy and gruesome.
Through a child’s eyes
Told mostly through the eyes of Ben, a nine-year-old Nigerian boy with three other brothers living in a rural town, the story is a wide-eyed tale of events as seen by a child. The brothers belong to the Agwu family.
The writer summons the folklore and myths of the land and casts a mesmerising spell on readers as they see the Agwus crumble in a brutal, mournful and tragic takedown by powerful forces that suddenly appear like a frightful leopard snarling, unsheathing its claws and scratching the air.
Indeed, the Agwus’ story is a Greek tragedy of Shakespearean proportions especially in the aspect of reversal of fortunes. It’s just like in Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Rex.
One moment, Oedipus sits on top of the entire world as king of Thebes as a critic aptly described him in his glory, “believing that he thwarted prophecy by running away from the people who raised him.
A series of events brings to light that Oedipus hadn’t escaped prophecy at all: He had murdered his own father and married his mother. At this point, Oedipus’s fortune changes.
He is an abomination, and finds his mother-wife has hung herself because of this revelation. Knowing the true nature of who he is leads to Oedipus blinding and exiling himself”.
In The Fishermen, the Agwus are like any ordinary family with a few challenges but happy and together. That is until a single event shatters their peace and tosses them into terra incognita (an unknown land) that defied easy explanations, an empty place filled with disaster.
For the Agwus, happy one moment and collapsing in the next, it is complete and absolute collapse. The children are not even left with any pieces to hold onto.
Daddy was gone!
The breakdown started with a fateful event—the transfer of the father from his job in Akure where they lived to Yola, a town afar off. When the father leaves, the children are free to roam as far as to the revered Omi-Ala River to fish.
And then, everything falls apart. This is the point the ancient Greeks called the reversal or the turning point in a drama; where the happy voices of children are silenced. Sudden and sharp changes of fortune from good to bad.
The narrator, wishes he could go back to the fateful day when fortunes changed and start afresh.
He says of the day his father left home, “when Father started his Peugeot 504 and was driving out of the gate. He was gone.
Whenever I think of our story, how that morning would mark the last time we would live together, all of us, as the family we had always been, I begin to wish he had not left, that he had never received that transfer letter.”
However, the cruel hand of fate sets in motion an unstoppable train wreck. Abulu, the village madman, prophesies the murder of the elder boy, Ikenna, at the hands of one of his brothers!
They wonder which of the brothers will be the future murderer. No matter what they do, like Oedipus, the four brothers cannot escape the prophecy that sets in motion a tragic chain of events.
The Fishermen is allegorical of many African countries. If countries can take wrong turns, then many in Africa have veered off into cliffs, grappling with lost promise and impacted by destructive external forces (like Abulu’s prophecies).