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”.
Hedley Twidle is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town