Strong nominations mean a more challenging job for the judges, and this year, the Booker Committee really had its task cut out. While we bask in the joy of having joint winners, how about sparing a thought for the other nominees? And here we are, revisiting Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel The Fishermen, who was nominated the second time this year. Suman Mukherjee guides us…
My heart skipped a beat discovering the name of Chigozie Obioma among the literary giants in this year’s Booker shortlist and it suffered another break not to find his name again in the winner’s banner. His debut novel THE FISHERMEN (which again was in the prestigious Booker shortlist but didn’t make the cut) had my heart on a hook and I have shamelessly recommended this book to almost half the people I have met since then. This novel had all the signs of a great writer having enormous capability and deep wisdom about surroundings characteristic of a seasoned brain. Generally writers, unlike mathematicians, mature as they ripen and then slowly turn into ‘golden leaves’ for generations to munch on. Mr. Obioma in that case resembles more of a mathematician than an author; an early blooming flower whose scent is easily carried afar by the casual morning breeze.
One does not have to juggle digits and equations to be so; a calculating mind knows how much to reveal and how much to conceal. Perfect length for a novel with an athletic balance of plot and language! A wonderful Nolanesque ending does the icing on the cake. An ideal novelist must know what should be the ideal length of a modern novel (now we have to exclude Mr. Joyce who was doing great in these criteria otherwise). Since my thoughts have suddenly taken a turn towards Mr. J, I must say THE FISHERMEN has many similarities with ULYSSES. The fabric of native myths in congruence with large Homeric epic tale is unmistakable in Joyce’s masterpiece. For generations African writers too have nurtured the native mythical traditions in their writings and in doing so, have kept alive the little tales essential to their culture. Undoubtedly these tales have strong human connection and close ties with pure natural forces. Its ancient essence of dark pallor overwhelms the audience just like the opening story of ‘the Panther Goddess Bust’ did to the viewers of the Oscar nominated movie BLACK PANTHER. Though our novel is not set in prosperous and peaceful Wakanda (but in Nigeria caught in political turmoil). Mr. Obioma is, thus, rightfully called the literary heir of the celebrated Nigerian author Chinua Achebe as both build up their plots on mythical soil gathered from home and abroad. Okonkwo’s tragic tale from THINGS FALL APART with a revenge motive is revisited in this novel. And things really fall apart!
Four brothers turn fishermen in a small town in Nigeria as they go fishing with hooks in a cursed river Omi Ala where the dismembered body of a woman was found. The flow is dead and the water is rotten. Full of teenage zeal, they even compose an anthem of fishermen to extend their short-lived joy. Their parents know nothing of these mischievous adventures until a neighbour spots them and reports. The eldest, Ikenna is roughed up by the father and the second, Boja is rebuked. The rest, Obembe and Benjamin (the narrator) are warned. Ikenna becomes distant from his brothers after he receives the beating, complaining that none of his brothers came forward when he was being punished. He says, nobody loves him. His brothers try to console him with soothing words but to no avail. Watching the distance grow among the brothers, the anxious mother intervenes and comes to know that Ikenna’s change has come after a terrible prophecy uttered by a madman of the town, Abulu who said Ikenna will be killed by one of the fishermen.
What a Shakespearean turn of event! A self-styled naked prophet who raped his own mother and murdered his own brother ruffles the peace in the lives of these young fishermen.
Those the gods have chosen to destroy, they inflict with madness.
Abulu was a madman full of desire and did not even hesitate to plough corpse of women. But his abominable presence in the town was larger than it looked, for his prophecies on the one hand had saved the town from calamities while on the other had brought disasters in people’s personal lives earlier.
Since time immemorial, man’s undeniable connection with prophecies and overweening curiosity had invited tragic turns but man’s desire to peep into the future has not waned. Mad with rage and blinded by Abulu’s poisonous words, Ikenna and Boja who were inseparable once turn into violent enemies and the worst follows. Both Ikenna and Boja are lost from the pages forever leaving a void in the family which drives their mother to the edge of insanity. Obembe and Benjamin conspire to avenge their dear brothers who die because of the vile madman.
But Abulu was a leviathan:
An undying whale that could not be easily killed by a band of valiant sailors. He could not die as easily as other men of flesh and blood.
The animal image associated with every human being is the most striking element to be noticed. Ikenna is a python, Boja a fungus, Benjamin a moth and Obembe a searchdog. Cleverly the author spares a lot of unnecessary words in describing a character (especially when you have so many in a Nigerian household in the background), leaving the rest to the reader. Perhaps a pure human space devoid of ‘animus’ in an African atmosphere is impossible and the author demands great energy and acumen from the reader to understand the unsolved equations of human and animal spirits. Literature, denying scientific knowledge has been since trying to comprehend the thin divide between two worlds in its own way by exploring ‘humanimality’ through dark alleys:
I observed that he carried on his body a variety of odours, the most noticeable of which was a faecal smell that wafted at me like a drone of flies when I drew closer to him. This smell, I thought, might have been a result of his going for long without cleaning his anus after excretion. He reeked of sweat accumulated inside the dense growth of hair around his pubic regions and armpits. He smelt of rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus, and of bodily fluids and wastes. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear he sometimes wore. He smelt, too, of leaves, creepers, decaying mangoes by the Omi-Ala, the sand of the riverbank, and even of the water itself. He had the smell of banana trees and guava trees, of the Harmattan dust, of trashed clothes in the large bin behind the tailor’s shop, 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, of semen from the ejaculations he’d spilled on himself every time he’d masturbated, of vaginal fluids, of dried mucus. But these were not all; he smelt of immaterial things. He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls. He smelt of unknown things, of strange elements, and of fearsome and forgotten things. He smelt of death.
This is by far one of the most enchanting passages I have read so far and for some reason, I cannot help remembering the opening lines of PARADISE LOST with its gnawing rhythm with a sense of impending catastrophe. The satanic portrait with half-human traits, filled with raw smells of animal instinct is terrifyingly surreal and captured my heart. Undoubtedly, this novel scored high among the critics because many a learned man judge a book by the number of books they are reminded of while reading it. Obioma’s work of art not only supplements your mind craving for good fiction but also disturbs your inner furniture. You cannot pick up another book immediately after closing this. Mr. Obioma is a fisherman, and certainly a clever one, whose hooks won’t let your mind sneak elsewhere easily.