The first time I read Things Fall Apart it was a rushed high school read, just another item in a long list of assignments. The second time, in a compelling college class about postcolonial literature, we deliberately dissected every chapter, line, and Igbo word. In a different English class about trauma, we read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which paints a wild, tragic portrait of the Nigerian civil war from 1967-1970. These two novels thread together key moments in Nigeria’s history, and Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, published in 2015, adds a stitch to their conversation. His writing seemed familiar to me, echoing the incorporation of Igbo vocabulary and customs in Things Fall Apart, and even employing a similar structure. Obioma develops an in-depth portrayal of four brothers and their family in the face of jarring changes—betrayals, deaths, and politics. These novels serve as markers of Nigerian history and literature, opening a floor-to-ceiling window to the country that experiences so much so fast.
Getting to know a city or country is like getting to know a person. You discover their beauties, secrets, quirks, and flaws. You learn about their past, savor the present, ponder the future, and observe how they evolve. Reading The Fishermen — especially with the foundation of Things Fall Apart and Half of a Yellow Sun — allows readers to travel through Nigeria and its towns, connecting with them as if they, too, were main characters. Obioma expertly introduces readers to Akure, Nigeria, facilitating this literary traveling with gorgeous imagery: “It was as if a hand drew hazy pictures in the sky during the rainy seasons, when rain fell in deluges pulsating with spasms of thunderstorms for six uninterrupted months. Because things followed this known and structured pattern, no day was worthy of remembrance.” It is intriguing to see authors build on each other and contribute to a wider conversation and a wider depiction of one place, which Obioma does by alluding to Okonkwo’s fate in Things Fall Apart and including references to the Biafran front during the civil war. By acknowledging the past, Chigozie Obioma writes more vividly about the present and its realities.
The Fishermen follows the shattering of a family — narrated by nine-year-old Ben, one of six siblings — as they suffer through a self-fulfilling Cain-and-Abel prophecy, set in the aftermath of the 1993 election nullifications and the messy political scene of the 90s. Abulu, the town madman, haunts Ikenna, the eldest brother, with a chilling prediction of his death. This wandering madman is the catalyst of chaos, serving also as a symbolic representation of the havoc-wreaking British, themselves catalysts of dramatic events still unfolding (like in Things Fall Apart). Though at times heavy-handed, The Fishermen's storyline continues with some surprises after the prophecy is realized and, with an eloquent net of rich imagery, catches a vivid image of a human mind driven by hatred and betrayal. It is an ironic error that builds resentment and tears down relationships, causing the characters around Ben to suffer as they are reduced to merely existing in grief.
I wish, however, that Obioma trusted his development skills enough to eliminate the outright explanations of his symbolism. He dedicates a page for Obembe to tell Ben the story of Umuofia, the village in Things Fall Apart whose downfall is the division and erosion of kinship caused by the white man. Obembe then connects his and Ben's personal struggles to those of Umuofia, with Abulu, deemed to be the enemy, already a symbol for the British colonialists. Ben and the readers sit through the explanation: “‘But do you know why Ike and Boja were divided?’ He suspected I didn’t have an answer, so he did not wait long; he went on. ‘Abulu’s prophecy; they died because of Abulu’s prophecy.’” This is something readers already figured out, and it acts as a small speed bump in the narrative.
The Fishermen simultaneously reads as a heartbreaking tale of an unconventional childhood and as postcolonial discourse, a conversation well established by Achebe. The latter is more subtle, lying on the outskirts of Obioma’s central storyline. It emerges in the father’s political commentary — a defining trait of his character. These elements help manifest the modern realities in Nigeria and their relation to the past, and by tying these realities to a well-developed family, they become something to care about. The father’s commentary helps to follow the course of history and observe the effects of certain historic events, like the imposition of Christianity decades ago and its modern popularity. The Agwu family lives with ancient superstitious problems and newer Christian solutions. They struggle to reconcile these two, like when the parents must decide whether or not to bury their son who commits suicide. Ben explains, “Although Christianity had almost cleanly swept through Igbo land, crumbs and pieces of African traditional religion had eluded the broom.”
Even broader ideas — like the town’s perception of their river, where Ben and his brothers become fishermen — shifted with the new British presence. For instance, “Like many such rivers in Africa, Omi-Ala was once believed to be a god; people worshipped it…. This changed when the colonialists came from Europe, and introduced the Bible … and the people, now largely Christians, began to see it as an evil place. A cradle besmeared.” These shifts surface throughout the novel and reveal the effects of the country’s past.
Ben’s father repeatedly extols Western education and its virtues, fervently hoping to send his sons to Canada to realize the professions he has in mind for them — pilot, lawyer, doctor, professor, and engineer. Even in a novel published last year, notions that arrived with the British over a century ago still stand. The brothers’ father reminds them, “I sweat and suffer to send you to school to receive a Western education as civilized men, but you chose instead to be fishermen. Fish-a-men!” To Ben’s father, fishing is “barbaric behavior,” which echoes old hierarchical diction. He also “railed on about the marginalization of Igbos in Nigeria. Then he complained about the monster the British had created by forming Nigeria as a whole.” This is probably the most overt commentary in the novel, tucked in the initial chapters as part of the father’s introduction. But The Fishermen is full of these contemporary ideals, modern realities that reflect the ones Achebe describes two years before Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. Obioma weaves these narratives carefully, keeping the focus on Ben’s family without ignoring the context that influences many events around them.
Abulu, the madman, and his fatal prophecy pull at the loose thread of the Agwu family’s tightly woven relationships, completely unraveling their sense of kinship and leaving the parents and their children in tangles of hatred and desolation. Obioma artfully tracks the transformations and metamorphoses of the characters with rich descriptions and telling animal comparisons. Through Ben, he describes, “Ikenna was a python: A wild snake that became a monstrous serpent living in trees, on plains above other snakes. Ikenna turned into a python after the whipping. It changed him.” And some chapters later, Ikenna becomes “a sparrow; a fragile thing who did not design his own fate.”
As the novel develops and the family crises escalate, the narration becomes gradually infused with a sharp nostalgia for the normalcy that once held their world together, and Ben’s retelling of events becomes laced with stories and retrospective thoughts that provide a greater insight into the personality of each main character. He laments Ikenna’s absence in his life, thinking of their bathing rituals and how his older brother held his hand on the way to their primary school. It is these well-developed personalities and well-molded relationships that give the novel depth and shape, that keep the reader suffering through even the most predictable event because each action affects every character so heavily. Though it seems like Ben becomes more and more hopeless with each chapter, he ends on an optimistic note: “I opened my eyes, cleared my throat, and started all over again.”
English major at American University, soon to be studying abroad in London. Corgi & coffee enthusiast. First intern at Seattle Review of Books.
Follow Rebecca Garcia Moreno on Twitter: @The_Bexican