The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma, author: Chukwudie Iwuji, narrator
In the bible, Jesus speaks of making ordinary fishermen, “fishers of men”. In this book there are four brothers who briefly become fishermen. Tragedy follows when they become “fishers of men”, but not in the way encouraged in the bible. The oldest, Ikenna, was nearly 15, Boja was a year younger, almost 14, Obembe was 11, and Benjamin was 9. Benjamin, the youngest of these brothers, narrates the story about his family during one fateful year and its aftermath in their home town Akure, Nigeria.
The sophisticated and successful patriarch, Mr. Agwu, was employed by the Central Bank of Nigeria. He had high hopes for the future of all his children; for his sons he dreamt of professions; one would be a lawyer, one a doctor, one a professor, one an engineer, one a pilot. For his daughter, he had no great concerns since she was, after all, only a girl. When a job transfer forced him to commute back and forth to his home, spending weeks at a time away, his wife, who ran a food store in the open market, begged him not to take the promotion. If he became a part-time parent, it would be a great hardship on her to raise their six children alone. He could not take them with him because the city he was going to, Yola, was unsafe with warring factions and armed revolt. When she begged him to return because she was losing control of the boys without his firm hand, he ignored her pleas. When he did return, things had already gone from bad to worse. The moment had passed to restore order.
Mr. Agwu wanted his children to be “fishers of the mind”, go-getters, not the simple fishermen that they had become in his absence. He beat them all severely. However, he believed that their defiance, when they briefly became fishermen, showed a kind of courageous spirit even though it was forbidden and dangerous. He had not known that on one day, when the fishermen brothers were returning home from fishing, they had encountered the resident madman, Abulu whose visions and curses frightened many of the people in their town. Abulu had been seriously injured in an accident and had become unstable afterwards. He was feared as a prophet of doom since often when he cursed people or prophesied their futures, his mutterings became reality or self-fulfilling prophecies. When the brothers came upon him, he called out to Ikenna by name and began to spew out prophecies and curses. He announced that one brother would turn against another and take his life. Ikenna, the eldest, was consumed with a fear that he was the one to be murdered for how could Abulu have known his name if he did not see the future. He grew angry and remote, suspicious and accusatory. He couldn’t eat. Soon, his fear focused on his younger brother Boja and the two began fighting, each fearing the curse referred to one of them. They believed that one would kill the other; they just did not know who would be the victor. Soon the fear of the prophecy consumed the lives of the brothers and their dreams of the future were dashed.
Avenging wrongful death was considered the duty of brothers, and since Abulu was the cause of all the trouble, he becomes the “fish” Obembe and Ben seek out to catch and punish for all their suffering. They believe they are reckoning the books for their older brothers. They were young boys, not yet men, who clothed themselves in a maturity they did not have and followed their angry instincts and religious superstitions rather than their intellect, common sense or their father’s advice. Benjamin decided, belatedly, to follow his father’s advice and to think of his mother before he acted. He refused to run away with Obembe. He returned home to face judgment. Each of the brothers became a victim in his own way, but Benjamin seems to have borne the brunt of punishment for the sins they committed. Was it because he was the most sensitive? Did that make him the weakest or, ultimately, the strongest? In the end, the Nigerian justice system made a mockery of the definition of justice and illustrated ignorance, backwardness, superstition, and injustice.
The climate of the times was no better. It was one of rebellion, political upheaval and civil war. People were murdered for being on the wrong side of an issue. They feared the soldiers and the rival factions against the government. Growing up under such tense conditions was a trial for the entire family. Their mother who was unable to handle all the stress and loss that life handed to her wound up in a mental hospital for an extended period of time until she recovered. She had visions of spiders which superstition dictated inhabited houses of grief. Their father, who returned after tragedy struck, removed the spiders from the house, which helped somewhat with her mental state, but it was only the beginning of their suffering.
The political atmosphere, backward culture and religious beliefs that had not yet entered modernity highlighted the difficult environment in Nigeria that the family faced and endured. The author clearly portrayed the scenes so that the brutality of the government and revolutionaries came alive. The author’s prose made abundant use of metaphors and similes that worked wonderfully to knit the story together and to create realistic images for the reader to imagine. A running nose was made to sound poetic even if the image was almost a bit too realistic. The narrator, because he was a native Nigerian, spoke with the appropriate accent and stress, making the story so much more realistic and authentic. Whether he described the locust season or the violent scenes, it was real. He understood the culture and the moment, and so he read it perfectly to impart the appropriate meaning and message. The reader was a participant rather than an observer and it was often disheartening as the politics of the day and the suffering of the family became clear as was their helplessness to bring about change.
Benjamin, in telling his story, gives his family members nicknames describing their personalities. His mother was a falconer; in order of their age, Ikenna was a sparrow, Boja was a fungus and Obembe was a moth. The book is filled with symbolism, legends and superstitions that illustrate the rhythm of their lives, lives governed by a good deal of erroneous belief in myths, religious misperceptions, and childish notions about the need for retribution when sins are committed. Ben remembered a story about Eagles and eaglets which is referred to as the Cain and Abel syndrome. Because of hunger, the eaglets turn against each other while the adult eagles stand by and do nothing. Cain and Abel are brothers in the bible who turn against each other, as well, with Cain killing Abel. The novel is moving and poignant. It is well told and well worth the print or audio version.