Matthew Orselli/Hachette Book Group
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Making myths: Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this tale of Nigeria in the 1990s is a mighty fry-up of pop-culture, fable and verbal invention.

In the Nigerian town of Akure, four brothers go fishing in the polluted and dangerous Omi-Ala river, much against their strong-willed but absent father’s wishes. Here they are cursed by the local madman Abulu, a figure known for public masturbation, necrophilia and (in one particularly memorable scene) making dinner by frying refuse in a wok: “a gallimaufry of filth and waste materials”. Once his dire prophecy has been uttered, it begins to fulfil itself, “causing smoke to rise from things yet unburned”. It turns ordinary sibling rivalry into something far more deadly and transmutes what seems at first to be an autobiographical novel into the richer, stranger thing that is The Fishermen.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Chigozie Obioma’s debut has been widely and joyously reviewed. The press materials that fell out of my copy show how critics ranging from those at the New York Times to those at welovethisbook.com have been – as the cliché goes – reaching for the superlatives. The Fishermen is, if I run it all together: searing, incandescent, darkly mythic, long-limbed and elegant writing, awesome in the true sense of the word, showing an unmatched level of intricacy, lyricism and control that makes Obioma the clear heir to Chinua Achebe.

As much as I enjoyed the novel – a searing, incandescent and, yes, darkly mythic tale of familial and social disintegration set in 1990s Nigeria – this pre-emptive barrage of praise inevitably made me seek out dissenting voices. The one discordant note I found came from Percy Zvomuya in South Africa’s Sunday Times. Taking a sideswipe at the many writers from Africa who have bedded down in the US and become, like Obioma, fiction fellows on MFA programmes, he reflects on the aesthetic consequences of the “ever-expanding Creative Writing Industrial Complex”, then ends on a sardonic note. The book’s inclusion in the Booker shortlist, he suggests, is not unconnected to geopolitics: “They had to fish out an African.”

Will the elegant fiction coming from those of Obioma’s generation (he is in his twenties) one day allow us to leave behind this kind of debate, in which global literary prizes are simultaneously longed for and sniffed at in a mixture of postcolonial critique and everyday resentment? I hope so – but, then again, I also hope not. If there were no more writerly envy, sideswiping and resentment, book reviewing would be transformed entirely into promo copy.

More specifically, Zvomuya complains that Obioma’s book is overlong and overwritten; that he doesn’t know what to leave out; that metaphors creak; that there are digressions within digressions. He is right but all of this opens up what intrigued me about the novel: its gallimaufry (a noun meaning heterogeneous mixture; a jumble or medley – one of many words in the book that I had to look up) of narrative traditions and techniques, the various ways of telling that it activates on a single page.

In a slow-burning portrait of an ordinary family embroiled in extraordinary times (Nigeria’s slide into the Abacha dictatorship underlies the story), Obioma weaves the linear chronology of a Bildungsroman and the everyday detail of the 19th-century novel together with the circuitous back-looping of oral forms and “told tales”: their tendency towards formulae, repetition, proverb, incantation. And verbal copiousness, too, because there is a deliberate wordiness to the prose, a mock-serious and even archaic sense of relish: dusk is a “crepuscular awning”, body odour a “corporeal convoy”. Adjectives proliferate “with gripping palpability”; faeces is always “excreta”, never shit.

This aesthetic merger of the writerly and speakerly, as the Nigerian novelist Helon Habila remarked, reviewing The Fishermen earlier this year, is one of the great engines of African literature in English from Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o onwards. But Obioma has found a blend that is distinctive, particularly when he evokes the private lexicon of the family, or cross-wires the tragic plot with 1990s pop culture: games of Mortal Kombat (“Finish him!”), footballs branded with the 1996 Atlanta Olympics logo. As in Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, the everyday of ­globalisation is worked into the vivid and voracious myth-making of childhood. How many other novels, after all, can give an ominous foreshadowing of fratricidal violence during an argument about who gets to watch Skippy the Bush Kangaroo?

Digressions are complex. They can be annoying but in that annoyance resides much of the pleasure of narrative: in being constantly diverted and misdirected from an inevitable fate. In The Fishermen, it becomes clear early on that we are in the realm of a preordained tragedy: a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel that is also a kind of elegy, as Obioma remarks, for a “dwindling nation” (and manages it cleverly for the most part, without much allegory showing).

The peculiar, at times frustrating pleasure of the book is in tracing how this mythic kernel is spun out and worried over for more than 300 pages: approached from different perspectives, now through the adult “I”, now the child “I”; returned to, led up to many times, as if the narrative voice does not quite understand the story it is telling, picking its odd and wilful way through “the vast territory of the past”.

The Fishermen is published by One (£14.99). Hedley Twidle is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution