I’ve read enough Nigeria fiction recently to know the backstory of the country’s civil war in the late sixties, and to have some familiarity with its languages and ethnic makeup. I was glad for this knowledge reading The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma, which is the story of four brothers growing up in a small Nigerian town in the ’90s—the story, mainly, of how a group of young men destroys itself. Knowledge of Nigerian history allowed me to understand the tale not just as that of four boys but as that of a country.
The author tells the boys’ tale through the eyes of the youngest brother, nine-year-old Benjamin, a quiet observer-type who watches how his brothers start to fight after their authoritarian father is transferred to a different town for work. First the four of them test their fate by becoming fishermen. Then they are cursed by a madman’s prophecy, which becomes self-fulfilling, especially for the oldest brother. The younger follow the older like dominoes down the path to destruction.
Each chapter is named after an animal or archetype— “The Python, The Eagle, The Madman”—and I found myself wondering about the name for the book, “The Fishermen,” which is also the name of the first chapter. Fishermen depend on skill, but also luck, chance, fate, and waiting to see what comes along. The boys all have skill, and are supposed to grow up to bright futures, according to their father who “sketched a pattern for our future—a map of dreams. Ikenna was to be a doctor…Boja was to be a lawyer, and Obembe the family’s medical doctor. Although I had opted to be a veterinarian…father decided I would be a professor.” But what fate brings them is mostly tragedy and disaster that it feels no skill could avoid.
Obioma, through his richly detailed, intense prose style, conveys that fate, chance, myth, archetypes, spirits and evil winds shape these characters’ lives. He burrows into descriptions, amplifies them, makes the familiar strange and meaningful. For example the boys go out to see a sports game at a bar and Benjamin describes that,