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Wading in Words: Percy Zvomuya Reviews 2015 Man Booker Longlistee The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

By Percy Zvomuya for the Sunday Times

The FishermenThe Fishermen
Chigozie Obioma (Faber Factory Plus)

Herman Charles Bosman might be a neglected writer these days, but his advice for storytellers is timeless and is especially relevant for novelist Chigozie Obioma, whose book The Fishermen has been longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

In his story “Mafikeng Road”, Bosman explains, “it is not the story that counts. What matters is the way you tell it. The important thing is to know just at what moment you must knock out your pipe on your veldskoen… And another necessary thing is to know what part of the story to leave out.”

It’s as though Bosman was peering into the future, gazing intently at the ever expanding Creative Writing Industrial Complex.

The Fishermen is 300 pages long; a lot could have been left to make a leaner, better book. The story, with many turns and tangents, features four protagonists – brothers Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and the novel’s narrator, Benjamin – alongside Abulu, the local madman. It is set during the Nigeria of the 1990s, in Akure, in the country’s south west. Those were the years when Nigeria would trade democracy and hope (in presidential aspirant Chief Moshood Abiola) for darkness and dictatorship (General Sani Abacha).

The first line of the novel, “We were fishermen: my brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 …” points to a tragic story, a tale of youthful adventure and brotherly camaraderie. It is also the story of migrant labour – a phenomenon that people in southern Africa intimately know – tracing how one man’s exile from his family resulted in death, murder, madness and more. By the time the exiled man learns of his sons’ escapades by the local river, and of their exploits as a fishermen, it is too late. As he lashes his sons, he cries out, “I sweat and suffer to send you to school to receive a Western education, but you choose instead to be fishermen.”

Fate has already set apart his children for its own whims. For a “prophecy” has been delivered by Abulu, the madman-oracle, regarding Ikenna, the eldest brother. Abulu is a victim of an automobile accident, which leaves him with a delicate mind. Exuberantly described as “the oracle of the scribbler of the telegraph of fate”, he will have sex with anyone in sight, his mother and a dead woman included; he eats leftovers; he lives rough; he roams around town. But, crucially, his cracked brain allows him access to the world beyond. So Abulu walks around predicting that an accident will claim one family, which happens, and that one man will die from pleasure, and the man duly dies while having sex with a prostitute.

The biggest flaw of this book is that it is overwritten: Obioma doesn’t know what to leave out. Many a times metaphors creak, stretched beyond breaking point. Then there are digressions of extended digressions. There is no space, for the purposes of this review, to show the numerous instances in which you want to say to the writer, ease up, go slow. But this will suffice: writing about his mother’s insanity, the narrator says, “she was … tucked away as if she were a dangerous explosive material. There had been a cataclysmic explosion of her mind, and her perception of the known world had been blasted in to smithereens.” Please note that things being blown to smithereens, or the phrase’s variants, happens a few other times in the novel.

Obioma is a writer to look out for: there is, to be sure, a compelling story somewhere in these 300 pages, as the attention from the folks at the Man Booker Prize attests. But it feels The Fishermen’s inclusion in the longlist has something to do with literary geopolitics: they had to fish out an African.

Follow Percy Zvomuya on Twitter @percyzvomuya

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