Oh, the joys of rereading –
This debut novel was on the Man Booker Prize long list in the summer of 2015 and I originally read it then and gave it a 9. It went on to be short listed which I expected, but I didn’t expect it to actually win against A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. That said, I knew it to be very good. So when the Booker Prize group decided to read it for December I was willing to give it another go – this time with Audio accompaniment. My new understandings are toward the end of this post.
by Chigozie Obioma – Nigeria
2015/ 296 pages
rating 9.75 – contemp lit
(both read and listened)
The story is told by the then 9-year old Nigerian boy Benjamin Agwu, youngest of a band of brothers ages 14, 13, and 11. The time frame is 1996-97. He’s telling it as an adult remembering back to those very difficult times for his family. There are two younger children in the family. One day father tells the family he has to work in another city where it is too dangerous for them to live. Mother is then in charge of the family, but much of the job is really given to the oldest brother, Ikenna who is only 14.
Also in the small town lives a man who is insane in some way and dangerous. He has a very bizarre backstory and is said to be sex-crazed, evil, and able to cast spells. The boys come across him on their way to the illicit fishing business they’ve set up in father’s absence and he does his thing – casts a spell. Later, the boys are caught whereupon mother, although a Christian is also a devout believer in the spirits of the old ways, goes a bit wacko. Father is told and clamps down on the discipline – especially on Ikenna.
Obioma includes background stories as necessary to develop the colonialist theme and to establish a personal or historical context – such as with the problems of Abulu, the madman, or the 1993 Nigerian election and resulting riots. Unusually, native traditions are not always presented in a sympathetic light but neither are the new Western and/or Christian ways. These backstories are completely embedded within and give texture to the main narrative which is linear.
The writing is a bit unusual but lively and quite appropriate to the story with some metaphors used in the way native Nigerians relate ideas. The author uses long beautiful descriptions which sometimes interferes with the action and if it were less well done I’d complain, but it’s beautifully done. The characters are more “types” I think than actually “rounded” and individualized, but that’s as it should be in a novel which has fairly ambitious goals. These characters represent whole groups of people – the superstitious mother and the ambitious father, the new generation of testosterone-driven boys, a mad-man running around casting “spells.” Too much individuality in those characters would take away their representativeness.
I hesitate to even get into the subject of themes. I suppose it’s a coming-of-age story but this tale is a pretty extreme way to do it. And there’s love and families and hope plus colonialism or native superstitions vs the Christian ideas (or how they mixed), old vs new ways in general. And then there’s vengeance and the uses of story-telling and memory and time. There’s a lot packed into fewer than 300 pages!
On rereading good books – yes! I reread about one book a month. Sometimes it’s a recent read anyway (within 6 months), other times it’s been years and years (in February it will be Bleak House by Dickens).
With The Fishermen I had a common rereading experience. On the first reading of this book I read what Ikenna did at one point, but just noticed it. The end of the book explained it in a way – but by that time I’d forgot what he’d done in that little prior part. On the second reading I noted again what Ikenna did at that point, but now it was combined with my knowledge of how the book ends and the penny dropped. There was actually a key to one of the major themes.
Next but super-important, there’s a huge natural element to the book – much larger htan what I was aware of the first reading. It’s in the setting of course, a bit, but the chapter titles are mostly named for animals, The Eagle, The Locusts, The Spiders, The Tadpole, etc. Only 6 (out of 18) are different – The Fishermen, The Metamorphosis, The Madman, The Falconer, The Fungus and The Leviathan – and they’re related somehow. -And now only are the chapters named for animals and other natural phenomenon, the first sentence describes which character is represented by that animal – for instance:
“3. THE EAGLE
Father was an eagle.
The mighty bird that planted his nest high above the rest of his peers hovering and watching over his young eagles the way a king guards his throne.” pg 24
Also the metaphors are often animal or nature related and there is an abundance of natural allusions – this is still a jungle in some ways –
All over the bazaar, the congested mass of humanity seethed like a tribe of maggots.” pg 68
The Fisherman is surprisingly complex and dense with a multiple events contributing to the plot and the vantage point of a 1st person who is recalling events from his childhood maybe 20 years prior.
And yes, it’s about memory – the memory of an adult about his childhood, the memories of the characters about prior events and these remembered by the adult narrator who is constructing a story for us. And about the power of dreams and belief.
Another take-away from the second reading is that Ben and his brothers are all very close and they love their parents dearly. Furthermore, the parents love the boys enormously – with all their hearts. I think that’s hugely important, but I didn’t recognize the depth of the love on my first reading because it gets obscured in the tragedy.
Finally, the effects of colonialism is a huge part of this novel. On my first reading I only glimpsed the surface of which effects were presented but there are many and they are expertly woven into the fabric of the tale through allusions and motifs and symbols – I think I’m going to enjoy the discussion.
The Crimson review:
Abiola and the war: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moshood_Abiola