This is my review of The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma.
When, despite their mother’s pleas, their stern father accepts the transfer to a bank “a camel’s distance of more than a thousand kilometres away” in northern Nigeria, four brothers slide into mischief, playing as fishermen at a dangerous out-of-bounds river. The cursing of the eldest, Ikenna, by a local madman, triggers a chain reaction of family tragedy extending far beyond the expected fateful climax.
The novel is saved from total bleakness by touches of ironic humour and vivid insights into Nigerian small-town life – the superstition, tradition, squalor, corruption and lurking violence bizarrely mixed with possession of western consumer goods and evangelical Christianity – from an author who has experienced it first-hand in the very community of Akure where the tale is set.
My reaction to the original, quirky prose is ambivalent, since its raw power is (for me) continually sabotaged by the distracting effect of mangled metaphors and misused terms. Is this style intentional? Is it brilliantly creative? Does it too often become just plain irritating? I can’t decide.
To provide a few examples out of thousands:
“crumbs of information began to fall from Mother’s soliloquy like tots of feathers from a richly plumed bird”; “in the distance, a wild motoring road undulated on the swathe of dirt road”; “the din of an aircraft flying overhead mopped his voice into a desperate whimper” In a sprawling bazaar, “the procession had zipped through the thin path between boulders of humans, stalls and shops, their trucks plodding ponderously to attract the market people”; “a clear sky had bared its teeth”; at a grave, “with a bewildering air of apathy, the diggers dug on, quicker”; the udder of courage from which we’d drunk our fill had been drained, and was now shrunken like a crone’s breast. He spat and wiped it into the earth with his canvas shoe”.
The oddness of the style may chime with the viewpoint of the former nine-year old self of Benjamin, the narrator who is recalling events two decades later. It may also capture the idiom of a strong Nigerian oral tradition of storytelling, but it often reads like a children’s story with an inappropriately dark and gruesome content. The spate of extreme and over-the-top emotional outbursts tends to batter the reader into insensitivity, seeking relief by disengagement from what is in essence an unbearably moving tale of the hand of fate.
Since the book reached the Man-Booker shortlist, the bar of critical review is inevitably set fairly high. As I tend to regret the current strait-jacketed contrivances of creative writing, perhaps I should be more enthusiastic about Chigozie Obigoma’s untrammelled out-pouring from the heart. Perhaps I should compare his style to Van Gogh’s brilliantly coloured, distorted landscapes as opposed to the uptight purity of classical art. My reservations may be best understood by reference to the subtle, fluid eloquence of another Nigerian writer, the late Chine Achebe.