The Fishermen is the tale of four brothers in 1990’s Nigeria, who become fishermen against their parent’s wishes after their father leaves the family house to work in another town. On a return visit he warns the boys of deviating from his pre-determined narratives for them, his desire to see them become professional successes and loyal men.
“What I want you to be is a group of fishermen who will be fishers of good dreams, who will not relent until they have caught the biggest catch. I want you to be juggernauts, menacing and unstoppable fishermen.”
But as they continue with the literal as well as figurative meaning of their father’s request, they are cursed by a madman who warns that the eldest brother, who he names despite having never met, will be killed by a fisherman. As the curse takes hold and the family falls apart, the narrator Benjamin’s life is cloaked in tragedy, deception and sadness.
While some have praised the novel’s ability to mix ‘the traditional English novel form with the oral storytelling tradition’, this duality, coupled with the switching narratives between present-tense-adult and present-tense-child’s voices that wrapped me in knots somehow, disconnecting me from the flow of the story. The Guardian’s review (linked to above) states this is the key success of the novel:
The author, when he wants to generate mystery or suspense, reverts to the child’s point of view, switching to that of an adult when he wants to create clarity and authority. Themes are teasingly introduced in the present, then the narrative flow is halted and the story flashes back to illustrate the theme before resuming. Thus the reader is constantly kept off-kilter, always a step behind the narrator.
But for me, the dark violence of the story confronts the reader in ways that become muddied when the narrator and the tense change. I found that yes, it added to the unease, but not in a way that was ultimately satisfying.
I know that some of this fault lies with me. For example there are biblical references which, as someone who’s never read the Bible, I didn’t appreciate properly. There are numerous glowing statements in which Obioma is pegged as the new Chinua Achebe, a writer which I’ve never read and therefore cannot appreciate the tradition and legacy this bestows. There is also an unrelenting sadness and grief throughout the book that I was just not ready to give myself to. Perhaps I just read the book at the wrong time, but at times reading The Fishermen felt like wading through thick swamp for little reward, a little like the boys’ fishing efforts at the river. I did not feel prepared for the uncompromising bleakness of it’s tale.
The political elements of The Fishermen were, however, understated and introduced me to an element of Nigerian history to which I was unaware. At the Edinburgh International Book Festival where I saw Obioma speak, a separate session with Nell Zink and Petina Gappah spurred the question of what responsibility does an author have in cultural anthropology. Is there an inherent role as an author to examine the national identity of their home country, a responsibility to reflect it’s current state within the pages of their books? It’s a difficult question and risks pigeonholing writers into uneasy corners. Would you want the responsibility of being the voice of Nigeria, or the voice of America, or the voice of Australia? It sounds completely terrifying. A rough quote I have written from the session is: ‘not being constrained by your own borders is just as freeing as being translated — it opens up stories and new perspectives to readers.’
Obioma joins a new wave of young African writers who are are working in America who are, as the New York Times' Sunday Book Review states: ‘as distinct as the African countries they come from.’ As Pettina Gappah said in the same session discussed above, there is a danger for her as a Zimbabwean writer in the West that ‘you no longer become a Zimbabwean writer, but an African one.’ Whilst The Fishermen was not a book I would return to, it has given me a much different side of Nigeria to that of fellow countrymen Teju Cole, a much different perspective from fellow African writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi and NoViolet Bulawayo (who’s respective books Americanah and We Need New Names I’ve written about here previously). When I think of the number of stories from the bigger cities of the east coast of Australia, or stories that glorify the Australian bush and mythical outback, I think of how separate they are from my own version of home in South Australia. So even though The Fishermen did not connect with me as a reader, it did fulfil the power of a good book — it took me to another place and made me understand it better than I did before.
Often after reading harrowing books I find myself looking for comforting foods. It very much feels like a child-like reaction, like I’m looking for reassurance that everything will be ok. So after finishing The Fishermen I treated myself to a bowl of Röte Grütze. A traditional German dessert that stirs enormous feelings of nostalgia for Germans everywhere. The most common version of this fruit compote makes the most of all the amazing berries that flourish over summer in Germany — strawberries, raspberries, red currants and cherries — but there are also winter versions spiced with cinnamon, either made with plums or with apples and blackcurrants. It can be served hot or cold, and though I recently had it served with vanilla ice-cream at a cafe in Hamburg, it’s more traditionally served with custard (Vanillesöße). My friend Christie shares a recipe for both on her German food blog, A Sausage Has Two. Though as she says it will always taste better when homemade, there are times where the supermarket-bought tubs make this an even more comforting and satisfying treat on a cold, dark grey night in Berlin.
As the skies turn dark and grey, the winds bitingly cold and the temperatures dip closer and closer to zero, it’s hard not to wonder where the challenges of this northern European winter will take me. Recently I came across a series of 'Six Really Honest Postcards From Lyon' by April Smallwood, written for Lip Magazine. I adored reading these beautiful and poignant reflections on the challenges of moving to a new city — language barriers, hopes versus reality, the impact on relationships and the tough decision about when is the right time to go home.