Allegorical Reading of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen

This is Chigozie Obioma’s first novel, The Fishermen, and it has often be praised for its depth and relation to African mysticism and culture. It follows the story of four fishing brothers whose lives are altered when they meet Abulu, the mentally depraved man close to the river where they go fishing. It is a story of prophecy and predestination. The brothers let the prophecy of Abulu decide how their lives would turn out and how they relate with one another.

Besides the primary interpretation and plot of the text, there is the allegorical connection of the text in some aspects of the text, considering the matter of African mysticism and predestination in the text. The way the lives of the characters in the text turn out is Greek-like and African in nature, that it does not have to do with the primary interpretation of the text alone, there is a connection beyond the primary interpretation.

The narrator whose part of the brothers that witness the prophecy laid by Abulu begins the story by making an introduction of his brothers. Ben and his brothers who are innocent school children have their paths and lives altered by the prophecy. However, prior to that, they are schoolchildren who get to discover the river and begin fishing in it. The narrator does the introduction in this way,

We were fishermen: 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. His employer, the Central Bank of Nigeria, had transferred him to a branch of the bank in Yola—a town in the north that was a camel distance of more than one thousand kilometres away. (1)

They are born into a life of middle class parentage with their father working in a government office, their mother a trader, they are schoolchildren, at first. However, with their father away from town, they begin to explore, and they select the forbidden river as their destination for fishing. The river is a symbol of destruction and crisis as it has been stated by the people of the town, even an old man from the church tries to make them stop coming; however, they persist.

In further introduction of the brothers, it can be clearly understood that these children characters are innocent in the earlier aspect of the text, only to become torn by the prophecy of Abulu and their own connection to the river. Before the prophecy happens, they live their normal lives. The narrator goes on further to continue in the introduction like this, “my brothers—Ikenna, Boja, Obembe— and I had come to understand that when the two ventricles of our home—our father and our mother—held silence as the ventricles of the heart retain blood, we could flood the house if we poked them” (1).

The children discovering the river and choosing to explore is facilitated by the decision of their father  to move to another city. This give the children the freewill and the needed space to explore, before they discover the mystical river. The narrator best gives off the cause this way, “things changed. His mammoth frame that commandeered decorum and calm, gradually shrunk into the size of a pea. His established routine of composure, obedience, study, and compulsory siesta—long a pattern of our daily existence—gradually lost its grip”  (6).  There is no father figure to watch over them, and so all hell is set loose and the children come to know and explore the river.

Ikenna is the centre of attraction among the brothers, because he is the eldest and the first son, and he is also the one whose death is prophesied by Abulu. He is the one whose actions gradually sets the motion for the tragedy that occurs in the text. Ironically, he is the one who chooses the river as the site of their exploration. The narrator tell it this way,

We became fishermen when Ikenna came home from school the following week bursting with the novel idea. It was at the end of January because I remember that Boja’s fourteenth birthday, which was on January 18th, 1996, had been celebrated that weekend with the home-baked cake and soft drinks that replaced dinner. Ikenna’s classmate, Solomon, had told him about the pleasures of fishing. (14)

Ikenna choosing the location of their truancy and exploration has a great role to play in the turn out of the events of text. Ikenna is the one who is prophesied to die in the novel first. His fear of the outcome of the prophecy and his trepidation sets off the chain of tragic events in the text. Ikenna as the selector of the location bears the brunt of the outcome and the ghastly prophecy.

Most of the events and characters are symbolical and metaphorically connected to political and historical events of the text. Amidst the murder, suicide and desolation that happen in the text, there is also the murder, incarceration and crisis that happen in the wider plot of the novel. There is a situation of two plots, side by side, complementing and facilitating each other. The River, for instance, is a symbol of doom as much as the Nigerian state and the elections of 1993. The narrator describes the river as,

Omi-Ala was a dreadful river: Long forsaken by the inhabitants of Akure town like a mother abandoned by her children. But it was once a pure river that supplied the earliest settlers with fish and clean drinking water. It surrounded Akure and snaked through its length and breadth. Like many such rivers in Africa, Omi-Ala was once believed to be a god; people worshipped it.  (18)

The river had become some sort of a curse and abomination for the people in the town. The boys choosing the river as a destination of their exploration started the chain of events that would turn out to be very deadly and tragic for the people. The river is like their doom, same manner the rest of the town perceived it as a doomed river, but the boys and their friends get to go and visit the river to catch fish in it.

Then, there is a clear relation between what happen to the brothers and what happens in the country. This is the allegorical aspect of the text. There are two plots running concurrently in the text, one has the family at the centre, while the other has Nigeria at the centre.

The largest or the most noticeable aspect of the text that has much connection of the intermingling plots is that of the character of M. K. O. Abiola of 1993 elections and the future destination of the boys. On the day Abiola visits Akure, the children are out of school and wandering in town. When he arrives, the children singing his praise, he calls them and connects to them. He gives them scholarship, and in addition to this, they are called Abiola boys. As things turn sour for Abiola, so does it do for the boys.

The narrator recounts a scene vividly of the connection of Abiola to the boys in how much they revere him. There is calendar he gives them that becomes their symbol of Abiola. The narrator recounts, “we named the calendar he gave us M.K.O. calendar because it had four of us and M.K.O. Abiola, Nigeria’s former presidential contestant, in it. I spotted a dead cockroach—possibly killed in a rage—whose maxillae were now flattened against the worn yellow carpet” (31). The boys symbolically represent Nigeria and the citizens of the country, in great ways, they are tied to Abiola.

The crisis and violence begins in the life of the boys when they begin going to the river and meet Abulu. Unlike Abiola where there is no one to tell him such prophecy, the boys have someone who makes the prophecy for them and it sets off a chain of reaction that culminates in the death of Ikenna and Boja. Obembe explains the genesis of the crisis in the life of the boys, ‘“Mama, it began the day we met Abulu at Omi-Ala,”’ (75).

Abulu makes the prophecy tearing them apart. Ikenna drifts away with Boja at first before they themselves get at each other’s throat. They hate each other aggressively facilitated by the Abulu’s prophecy. The time this happens is right after the 1993 election was annulled, the one that would have brought in Abiola. The brothers hate themselves so much that the symbol of Abiola in their lives is torn apart. The narrator creates the scene,

Our prized M.K.O. calendar was charred to pieces, and meticulously destroyed. I could not believe it at first, so I glanced at the wall where it had always hung, but what I saw was a cleaner, shinier, and almost glossy, blank square surface of the wall, its edges slightly smeared with spots where it had been taped. The sight horrified me; my mind could not grasp it, for the M.K.O. calendar was a special calendar. (62)

It is Ikenna, who is the pushing force for the crisis and destabilization of the brotherhood, that rips off the calendar and shreds it. The boys lose their symbol of Abiola, and the misunderstanding between them is deepened further.  After this, Boja could no longer take the humiliation Ikenna give him of locking him out of their room. He confronts Ikenna, and they fight to death. Boja stabs Ikenna in the stomach and jumps into a well.

This crisis is worsened as the mental state of the family is never the same. Ben also sets out with Obembe to revenge the death of their brothers. However, this does not eliminate the situation of what occurred. The narrator captures the final state of Boja after jumping into a well, “but his appearance was not like that of a resurrected body, it was the unforgettable frightening image of a bloated dead. To prevent this image from imprinting on our minds, Father forced Obembe and me into the house” (158)

The Fishermen is a great novel.

Works Cited

Obioma, Chigozie. The Fishermen. Palessia, 2016.

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