James Agwu tells his sons, “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.” He wants the best for them: Ikenna, to become a pilot; Boja, to become a lawyer; Obembe, to become a doctor; and for Benjamin, perhaps a veterinarian or college professor. Yet, poignantly, in their Igbo tribe there is no word for “scientist”.
Paulina Adaku Agwu, a spiritual and caring woman, is heavily devoted to her children. “In this part of Africa, married women often went by the name of their first child.” Paulina is known as Mama Ike. She gathers her children like “the falconer”. She defends them in a place where doors are locked at night due to the frequent armed robberies of homes, during the time of M.K.O. and after “the war”.
Although miles and oceans away, the village of Akure in Nigeria is not that different from where I live, just down the train line from the city of New York. Author Chigozie Obioma is heartfelt in THE FISHERMEN, showing the stark contrast, yet relating us one to another. “As people waived the Nigerian flags in the summer heat in faraway Atlanta, Akure slowly drowned.” Connected, yet troubling different. He shows, like many of our families, that mothers and fathers care—that brotherly bonds are near inseparable.
“Although Christianity had almost cleanly swept through Igbo land, crumbs and pieces of the African traditional religion had eluded the broom.” The Agwu family’s village lies in close proximity to the once worshipped Omi-Ala river, now accursed by Christian zeal. The brothers, ranging in ages from 9 to 15, are like any boy in 1996, playing Mortal Kombat or watching Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Their boyish desire lead them to the river, not to become fishers of good dreams, but fishers of fun and profit.
This is where things turn. The boys meet Abulu: “he often dismantled vain kingdoms of people’s thoughts and lifted shrouds from the swaddled corpses of buried secrets.” In painstaking, near poetic tones, Obioma tells their story through the young voice of Benjamin. He talks sadly about the brothers: “It altered the shape of our lives and ushered in a transition of time when craniums raged and voids exploded.” And: “but the passion we’d developed for fighting had become like liquid frozen in a bottle and could not be easily thawed.” The brothers have trouble shaking Abulu’s prophecy: “People began to see his visions as ineluctable, and they believed he was the oracle of the scribbler of the telegraph of fate.”
This book is easy to read, yet heart-heavily difficult to absorb. Benjamin notes a saying he heard that when fear takes possession of the heart of a person, it diminishes them. We as readers are witness to that diminishing: health, faith, well-being, and relationships. The most painful of all: family.
“Hatred is a leech: the thing that sticks to a person’s skin; that feeds off them and drains the sap out of one’s spirit.” Ben’s tender spirit is evident in the writing, as he compares everyone to animals, both gentle and extreme. This makes THE FISHERMEN even more wrenching to partake as the story progresses. Ben writes, “I once heard that the heart of an angered man will not beat with verve, it will inhale and bloat like a balloon, but eventually deflate.”
This is a novel that shows similarities and contrasts. This is a novel that speaks truly. This is a novel worthy of reading.
Let’s not leave on a downer: here’s the opening to the Agwu brothers’ favorite show, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Sing along, if you know it.
UPDATE: September 15, 2015, THE FISHERMEN was just Short Listed for the Man Booker Prize. Congrats to all involved!!!