I adored the David Attenborough Africa series. There was the ferocious giraffe neck fight, the heartbreaking bit with the mummy and baby elephant (I shed a tear just writing that), and this inspiring moment of baby turtles scrambling down the beach to reach the sea:
This story of the turtles – so many of them hatching in such hostile conditions and only a very few of them, with a near-impossible amount of determination and luck, reaching the sea – strikes me as being remarkably similar to the fate of debut novels. Think of the miracle of a story hatching in someone’s mind. Think of all the thousands of ideas that hatch, and how few manage to make it into print without being picked off by the many hazards faced by aspiring writers. Once the debut novels have made it into the water, so to speak, they ought to be applauded, they at least ought to be read.
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is one such baby turtle that reached the sea in rather beautiful nick. The bright jacket caught my eye and my interest was piqued when I saw it’s published by Pushkin Press’s ‘One’ Imprint, which produces just one book a year. When a publisher is that selective, you feel the book must be good.
The Fishermen is narrated by nine-year-old Ben, who tells us about his life with his brothers:
My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives.
With their father away, the boys go fishing together in a dangerous, forbidden stretch of river. I settled in to what I thought might be a kind of Nigerian Stand by Me, half-wondering when they would see their first dead body or get covered in leeches.
The oldest brother, Ikenna, soon starts to be tricky and rebellious, perhaps testing his freedom now the father is gone. Yet it soon transpires that Ikenna’s difficult behaviour is not part of the usual trials of adolescence, but goes back to one day at the river, when he was cursed by Abulu the madman. Abulu prophesies that he will ‘die by the hands of a fisherman’. The brothers have called themselves fishermen, so Ikenna is convinced that Boja, the nearest to him in age, will murder him. As the poison sets to work in his mind, Ikenna suffers more and more, driving a wedge between him and his family so that you fear the prophecy, unthinkable as it is at the beginning, might just come true. I shall leave the plot here for risk of spoilers.
Obioma writes beautifully, with an imaginative eye for metaphor that makes the book feel mythical, as though the story is bigger than what it purports to be. So it isn’t just a story about a particular family, it is a powerful novel about ‘family’. When the mother is upset at Ikenna’s behaviour, we get:
It seemed a part of her body, which she had got accustomed to touching, had suddenly sprouted thorns and every effort made to touch that part merely resulted in bleeding.
It’s a brilliant rendering of that close bind between mother and child – after all that child was indeed once a part of her body – and the pain that is felt when the child turns away. It is every bit as affective as Lear’s ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’.
I thought of Shakespeare again as Ikenna is increasingly derailed by Abulu’s prophecy. These words destroy him, just as Othello is destroyed by Iago’s plot ‘to ‘abuse Othello’s ear’ with words. Words drive Ikenna and his brothers to terrible actions they would never otherwise so much as consider; words have a terrible agency.
When the brothers first encounter Abulu the madman, Ben says, ‘He is like a lion’:
‘You compare everything to animals, Ben,’ Ikenna said, shaking his head as if the comparison had annoyed him. ‘He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman – a madman.’
Alongside their evil power, words are shown here to be a tool for making sense of things. Ben tries to understand what the madman is by comparing him to a lion, renaming him as something with which he is more familiar. Indeed each chapter begins with comparing a character to something, usually an animal:
Father was an eagle … Obembe was a searchdog … Ikenna was a python
When trying to understand the behaviour of his family, Ben uses this metaphorical power of words. In renaming his characters, he exercises the power of the storyteller. So Ikenna’s behaviour is less painful if it is rendered as the behaviour of a python; Abulu is not a terrifying madman if he is in fact a lion. It makes me think of Ursula le Guin’s haunting children’s novel The Wizard of Earthsea, in which she writes of the power of knowing something’s true name. Her young wizard Sparrowhawk must learn the true names of things in order to have power over them. So Ben, in The Fishermen, renames the characters in an attempt to exert power over them.
We see, however, that unlike Ben, Ikenna resists the power of these renamings. He says in response to Ben’s calling Abulua a lion:
He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman…
Interesting this ‘you hear?’ inserted in there. In part it is a colloquialism – ‘you hear me?’ – but if it is read more literally as a verb it makes Ben a hearer, someone who receives information, rather than a speaker, who gives information. Ikenna hears the madman, and it is this hearing which undoes him. Luckily Ben doesn’t just hear, he tells: he turns the madman into a lion, his father into an eagle, Ikenna into a python.
A debut novel is a baby turtle. I’m delighted that this baby turtle has made it into the sea.