The Fishermen: Chigozie Obioma

Published by One (Pushkin Press)

A madman prophesies that a boy will be killed by a fisherman. The fear created by the prophecy changes the boy. But will the fear itself lead to the murder or is the madman able to see the future?

The Fishermen is narrated by Ben, looking back to the time when he was a 9-year-old boy living with his parents and five siblings in a town in western Nigeria. Their father, who works for the Central Bank of Nigeria, is transferred to Yola, leaving their mother to raise the children on her own.

The father feels he can leave the family because he has faith in his wife and in his oldest son, Ikenna, a 15-year-old who commands the respect of his younger siblings. The father has high hopes for his sons, believing that someday they will become great men. It takes one incident to destroy these dreams, a single event that leads to the unravelling of the family.

One day, Ben and his three older brothers—Ikenna, Boja, who is 14, and Obeme, 11 —decide to go fishing in Omi-Ala river, which runs through their town. The river is said to be polluted and the area dangerous. But their father is not around to stop them, and the boys sneak away without telling their mother. “I realize that it was during one of those trips to the river that our lives and our world changed. For it was here the time began to matter.”

One day, near the river, they bump into Abulu, the madman who has a reputation for making prophecies that come true. Abulu calls out to Ikenna, predicting his death, adding “you shall die by the hands of a fisherman”.

Since the four brothers have started calling themselves fishermen, Ikenna assumes that he will be killed by his one of his own brothers. Without any real justification, he suspects Boja, the brother he is closest to. This fear transforms the him: the cheerful, confident boy becomes angry, suspicious and unruly.

“The prophecy, like an angered beast, had gone berserk and was destroying his mind with the ferocity of madness . . . until all that he knew, all that was him, all that had become him was left in disarray. To my brother, Ikenna, the fear of death as prophesied by Abulu had become palpable, a caged world within which he was irretrievably trapped, and beyond which nothing else existed.”

I won’t give away more of the plot. It is a brilliant depiction of what happens when the seeds of fear are sown, and the way it affects not only the fearful person but all of those around him, destroying the relationships that were once sustaining. Fear opens the door to hatred and pain. Chigozie Obioma writes movingly of the grief of their normally indomitable mother, a grief so deep that she almost loses her mind.

The Fishermen is a book about abandoned dreams and broken relationships but also about the bonds that endure the worst that can happen. This is a beautifully written, powerful book.

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