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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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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear