Like many of the books on the Man Booker shortlist, The Fishermen—the debut novel of 28-year-old Chigozie Obioma, the youngest nominee—is unflinchingly dark. The book jacket uses the adjective “Cain and Abel-esque,” which gives readers a fair warning of what to expect. But Obioma does more than transplant a familiar biblical story to 1990s Nigeria. He also does away with its moral clarity, along with any clear sense of justice, responsibility, and blame. His work has impressed critics: “Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe,” writes Fiammetta Rocco in The New York Times, one of many reviewers to compare Obioma to the celebrated Nigerian author.
The title of Achebe’s most famous book, Things Fall Apart, would also serve as an accurate plot description of The Fishermen. Obioma’s protagonists are four brothers— Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Benjamin—who live in the village of Akure, Obioma’s own birthplace. When the novel opens, Ikenna, the oldest, is 15. After their stern father is transferred to the city of Yola by his employer, the Central Bank of Nigeria, the brothers begin to ignore their studies and sneak off to go fishing in the Omi-Ala River, which locals consider a cursed place.
It’s during one of these trips that the brothers encounter Abulu, a local madman known for his eerily accurate prophecies. He calls to Ikenna by name and makes a prediction: Ikenna will die a terrible death, murdered by one of his brothers. Everything to come hinges on this moment, and so does the mystery at the core of The Fishermen. Does fate have its own gravitational pull, or is it just the power of conviction? Obioma leaves the reader to decide what counts more, that Abulu makes the prophecy or that Ikenna believes it.
One of Obioma’s most powerful decisions is to assign the role of narrator to 9-year-old Benjamin, who is at once looking back as an adult and conjuring up the perspective of his childhood self. Benjamin’s loyalty to his brothers sometimes clouds his understanding, but also makes a mythic story feel human. As Ikenna’s fear erodes his trust in his brothers, Benjamin describes the transformation in a way that manages to be both metaphorical (drawing on elements of African storytelling tradition) and intimate:
The prophecy, like an angered beast, had gone berserk and was destroying [Ikenna’s] mind with the ferocity of madness, pulling down paintings, breaking walls, emptying cupboards, turning tables until all that he knew, all that was him, all that had become him was left in disarray.
Meanwhile, Abulu the prophet keeps making slightly nauseating appearances, though he never seems to pose a real threat. Gleeful and manic, Abulu wanders the town, singing and eating from garbage bins, and indulging an unpleasant habit of masturbating in public. At one point, he has intercourse with a corpse. He stinks of rotten mangoes and his own excrement, “of leftover meat at the open abattoir in the town, of leftover things devoured by vultures, of used condoms from the La Room motel, of sewage water and filth.” Both ridiculed and feared, Abulu lacks the malice of a convincing villain even as he exerts a strange sway over the novel’s characters.
Whether Abulu is truly prophetic seems beside the point. Obioma never rules out the possibility of the supernatural, but the driving forces of the book are internal, not external—the push-pull of characters fighting for a sense of agency but believing all the while in fate. Some of the most striking scenes come at moments when Benjamin realizes that his brothers’ obsessions are consuming them. A gaunt and half-crazed Ikenna, eyes bloodshot, dares his brothers to admit they hate him, and then wavers as they plead with him to forget the prophecy. Obembe, planning his revenge against Abulu, cries and smokes by the window, a “small man of sorrow.” These are also the moments in which characters teeter on the brink of a choice, when things could have gone another way.
Though The Fishermen reads like a parable, it offers no clear lesson. There are too many unanswered questions, or too many questions for which every answer is unsatisfying. Who bears responsibility for the book’s tragedy? Abulu, for issuing the prophecy? Obembe, for blurting out the worst of it when he could have kept silent? Ikenna, for letting it consume him once Obembe has relayed it? Their mother, and much of the rest of their community, who elevated a madman to the status of prophet? Their father, for not helping to follow through on his prophecy, or injunction, after he finds out about his sons’ secret expeditions to the Omi-Ala River? He invokes a different future for them, as “a different kind of fishermen … fishermen of the mind. Go-getters. Children who will dip their hands into rivers, seas, oceans of this life and become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers.” And then he goes back to the city, absent when the family needs him most.
In an interview earlier this year, Obioma described the novel as in part “a critique of the British occupation of Nigeria,” and called the attempts of colonial Britain to forge a nation out of disparate tribes “tantamount to the prophecy of a madman.” (Read the rest of the interview here.) This reading seems to suggest that Abulu (i.e. colonial Britain) deserves the bulk of the blame, and perhaps that the brothers’ struggles represent tribal divisions. Yet it would be limiting, and too neat, to label The Fishermen a political allegory. Obioma pulls readers beyond symbolism into a human story of personal fates and what shapes them.
Obioma was just awarded the inaugural Emerging Voices prize for African and Middle Eastern fiction, but I’ll make no prediction about the fate of The Fishermen at the hands of the Man Booker judges. (I’ve yet to read the other novels, and in any case, am feeling wary of prophecies.) Whatever happens, Obioma has written a striking book—and luckily, people are noticing.