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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

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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