Thursday, November 16, 2017

Reading group: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

Clare suggested this book which has received much acclaim and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is the tale of four young brothers in the west-Nigerian village of Akura in the 1990s, whose middle-class family falls apart after their disciplinarian father is moved away for his work and the boys then run wild. While fishing in the polluted, forbidden and 'cursed' river, they encounter the village homeless 'madman' Abulu who is credited by the locals with the power of prophecy, and who tells them that fifteen-year-old Ikenna, the eldest of the four, will die a horrible death at the hands of his brothers. The effect of this on Ikenna is to make him so distrustfully withdrawn from his brothers that the stage is set for the fulfilment of the prophecy. The tale is related by the youngest of the four, Benjamin, partly via his adult retrospective viewpoint and partly through his nine-year-old perceptions at the time.

Clare said that although she had found the book a fairly easy read and interesting, and the narrator likeable, she had been surprised, in view of the book's reception, to find it in fact not very well written, and she wondered if some kind of cultural special pleading were going on.

All of the rest of us had felt the same, and we now wondered: was this the case, that the book was less than well written, or, since we were so out of line with general opinion, were we suffering cultural blindness?

Reviewers have particularly praised the prose which is vividly and concretely metaphoric, each chapter beginning with a metaphoric announcement - 'Father was an eagle', 'Mother was a falconer', 'Ikenna was a snake', etc - which is elaborated for the rest of the chapter and picked up again throughout the book, and reviewers have found this inventive and vivid.

Narrator Benjamin explains early on that a metaphoric or symbolic mode is characteristic of the Igbo language (which the parents speak to the boys as well as English): was ... the way our language - Igbo - was structured, for although the vocabulary for literal construction for cautionary expressions such as 'be careful' was available, they said 'Jiri eze gi ghuo onu gi onu' - Count your teeth with your tongue.

That phrase, 'Count your teeth with your tongue', presented as a typical Igbo aphorism, is certainly very apt - counting your teeth with your tongue would certainly render it unable to engage in rash speech - and it has the witty virtue of economy. Obioma's metaphors are however extremely elaborate, and while the pictures they conjure are indeed vivid, they are often irrelevant to or even cut across the meaning intended. On the first page we are told that the brothers' parents are the 'ventricles of our home' - an obscure enough metaphor (what kind of ventricles?) to require elaboration:
'when ... [they] held silence as the ventricles of the heart retain blood, we could flood the house if we poked them.'
Yes, parents are the heart of a home, but ventricles? The elaboration of the metaphor is so concretely particular that you are forced to think in a very concrete way about the parallels being drawn: ventricles are only two of four chambers of a heart, and they don't exactly retain blood, they pump it on. And the image of a heart speared conjures the notion of death, making the metaphor overwrought for what we are in fact being told is a habitual parent-child relationship.

In the next paragraph we learn of the mother's distress at the father's sudden and imminent departure:
'...crumbs of information began to fall from Mother's soliloquy like tots of feathers from a richly-plumed bird', a mixed metaphor (crumbs = feathers) that had me putting down the book laughing (and not wanting to bother going on), inured to the mother's distress, and trying to get my head around the idea of a soliloquy being like a richly plumed bird. (In retrospect I thought that maybe it was the mother who was meant to be like a richly plumed bird, but that's not what the sentence, grammatically, says.) One chapter begins: 'Boja was a fungus', and the very next sentence proclaims with a lack of metaphoric logic: 'His body was filled with fungi.'

There were other things that seemed to us like either infelicities of language or authorial failures of imagination. A procession 'zipped' while 'plodding ponderously', a branch is 'foliated with leaves' (ie 'leafed with leaves'), grave diggers dig 'quicker' but with 'a bewildering air of apathy', and at one point Mother is 'visibly ripped inside-out'.

The book has been praised for its accomplished storytelling, which, it is generally agreed, borrows from the African oral tradition. However, it seemed to us that there were narrative structural techniques available to both oral and written storytelling that this book failed to use, with a loss of required dramatic tension. Very often a crucial feature of a scene - crucial to the story - will not be revealed during the portrayal of the scene but will be reported afterwards, thus losing the dramatic impact it could have had. A significant example is the narrative handling of the making of the prophecy and Ikenna's early reaction to it. Ikenna begins withdrawing from his brothers very early on in the book, but we, the readers, do not learn why until Page 84 when the horrific scene in which Abulu makes the prophecy is related in flashback. Yet this omission is not justified, as some reviewers have implied, by Ben's nine-year-old naivety. Early on in the novel we witness a scene at the river in which Ikenna has begun to act strangely. He is actually asked by one of the boys present if he is upset because of 'that day you met Abulu', which prompts Ben to think about that encounter, at which he was present - though he doesn't reveal anything about it to the reader - and to ponder briefly the fact that their brother Obembe suggested the connection with the change in Ikenna. It appears to be a deliberate choice by the author to keep the details of that encounter from the reader, as, rather obviously, and oddly for the reader, Benjamin is quickly distracted from pondering it. It seems a strange narrative choice, as knowledge of the prophecy would have provided for the reader a dramatic tension and sense of doom that is absent up to page 84. Once the prophecy is revealed to the reader, it is pressed home with such insistence and is so much the motivating force behind the action playing out between the brothers, that Benjamin's apparently epiphanic realisation late on in the novel that Abulu may be the cause of Ikenna's fate seems both overstated and inconsistent or disingenuous.

Overstatement and repetition occur throughout the book, and while they may indeed be acceptable characteristics of oral storytelling, as features of a 300-page printed novel aimed at a Western literary audience, they struck us as naive. The inclusion at the front of the book of a map of Akura, Obioma's own home village, with named streets and buildings that are not even mentioned in the book, seems another mark of naivety.

One particular scene seemed to point to an overall lack of narrative skill. After Benjamin and Obembe have taken horrific revenge against Abulu, and before going back into the house, they take off their blood-stained shirts and throw them away over the fence. When they get in the pastor is with their mother and they are forced to take part in a prayer session before they can escape to their room. Once they are in their room we are told that they had put their shorts on inside out in order to 'conceal the bloodstains', which immediately raised the following questions: Why was this fact not included in the scene outside the house (it would be a bigger operation to take off shorts, turn them inside out and put them on again, than to whip off shirts, and it would thus in fact be a more salient aspect of the scene)? And wouldn't the mother, who had been curious about their shirtlessness and would therefore have been peering at their appearance, have noticed that their shorts were on inside out? And wouldn't blood have soaked through presumably cotton shorts, and therefore have been visible to the mother anyway? It is as if the author, having failed to fully imagine the scene outside the house (or indeed, by extension, the revenge scene) had realised only later that there would have been blood on the shorts, and had had to make up (inadequately) for the omission. (Doug also said that in spite of the extended description of the weapons the boys construct for attacking Abulu, he simply couldn't envisage them or precisely how they were used, and others agreed - so in spite of the lengthy description we found a lack of vividness.)

Ann commented that this indicated a lack of editing, and we wondered if this was yet another aspect of over-positive discrimination. Jenny now wondered again however if it was inappropriate to be applying our Western literary expectations, and if the way this novel is written is simply 'the African way'. Others of us thought there were dangers of patronisation and indeed racism in this attitude - ie that of assuming African literature to be necessarily naive, insular and unreconstructed. Obioma is in fact on record as seeing the 'narrative arc' as crucial to storytelling, and, indeed, two generations earlier another Igbo Nigerian, Chinua Achebe, was using the narrative arc of Western culture to an extent and a rationality of prose with a sophistication that this novel fails to do. It is after all oral storytelling that is the traditional 'African way', and, as Obioma himself has stated in interviews, novels written in English by Africans like himself are necessarily Western and move away from that old culture. In fact, The Fishermen is full of self-conscious accommodations for its Western audience, such as its description of the characteristics of Igbo language quoted above, and its (somewhat clumsily inserted) explanation of the Harmattan:
Then, in late October, the Harmattan - a season when the dry dusty wind from the Sahara desert of Northern Nigeria travelled south and covered most of sub-Saharan Africa - seemed to have appeared overnight...
The book does have sophisticated aims, which reviewers have jumped on. Obioma explicitly invites comparison with distinguished antecedents, echoing the title of Achebe's Things Fall Apart in the text, and having Obembe directly compare his own and Benjamin's situation to that of Achebe's protagonist Onkonwo. Another parallel made explicitly within the text is with Cain and Abel. In interview, Obioma has called the book 'an African version of tragedy'. More than one reviewer has tried to draw a parallel with Greek tragedy by citing as the hubristic fatal flaw the ambition of the boys' father Ebe for them - he wants a lot of children (the four boys have two younger siblings) and for them to be Western-educated and become 'fishermen of good dreams ... who will ... become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers'. It's actually more complex than that: in fact, Ikenna's superstition operates more dynamically as a fatal flaw. (Meanwhile some have praised the novel for its psychological depth in tracing Ikenna's disintegration, but we found no psychological depth, since Ikenna's superstitious reaction is simply stated as fact and his behaviour observed from outside - as, indeed, in Greek tragedy.) While courting a Western audience, Obioma is on record as having called the book a 'wake-up call to Nigeria' and Nigerian politics do indeed form a backdrop to the action. Ebe is passionate about his boys receiving a Western education, yet the family is overtaken and destroyed by an old mode of superstition - the fatal flaw is perhaps rather the imposition of a Western colonising political situation and ethos on what Obioma himself has called an 'inherently superstitious' people.

So, are the style and construction of the book intended as a formal illustration of this, the way that old superstitions break through Westernisation? Or, as someone in the group said, are they an unfortunate pandering to a patronising and potentially racist Western view of African literature as charmingly exotic and primitive? Or is it simply that, as Clare had originally felt, on the level of style and structure the book does not match its author's ambitious and commendable and political aims?

We tended, I'm afraid, to conclude that last, and although Jenny said that she was glad to have read it, she had to admit that she wouldn't have carried on with it had she not had to for the group, and everyone else apart from Clare had said they had really struggled with it.

On a final note, however, Doug said he had really loved the depiction of the mother - a really great character.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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