Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Chigozie Obioma, _The Fishermen_

ON THE ONE hand, here is a novel of a fully contemporary Nigeria, with the World Cup, Peugeots, office jobs, and election rallies, but on the other, we have a tale as dark and terrible as anything in Genesis or Greek mythology: lethal sibling rivalries, ominous prophecies, devouring revenge.

One often encounters the weird and elemental in Nigerian literature--Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri--and likewise one can think of plenty of examples of classic mimetic realism--Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Chimananda Ngozie Adichie.  (Is this a Yoruba-as-opposed-to-Igbo thing?) Obioma seems to be channeling both at once.

How does he pull this off? It helps, I think, that his principal characters and narrator are children, for whom plain quotidian details have a kind of distinctness and glowing presence, who can feel the wonder in the arrival of a helicopter and sense something demonic in the local homeless man given to   oracular pronouncements:

He smelt of rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus, and of bodily fluids and waste. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear he sometimes wore. He smelt, too, of leaves, creepers, decaying mangoes by the Omi-Ala, the sand of the riverbank, and even of the water itself [...] But these were not all; he smelt of immaterial things. He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls. He smelt of unknown things, of strange elements, and of fearsome and forgotten things. He smelt of death.

Fearsome and forgotten things, right alongside cinderblock walls, homework assignments (Things Fall Apart, naturally), and juvenile courts. The Fishermen is not quite like anything else, and I expect it will stay in my mind for quite a while.

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