Matthew Orselli/Hachette Book Group
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496