It’s perhaps a surprising thought, but a novel can often give a clearer picture of issues in development than a hundred policy papers or academic articles. If you are flummoxed by the jargon of ‘corruption as a collective action problem’, for example, and want to know what it actually feels like – read Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, or even a Raymond Chandler novel. Both will give you a sense of how difficult it is to be the only person trying to be honest “in a world where it’s out of style”. I’m a great believer in the power of fiction to make issues in development more real, to help them reach a wider audience and even to raise different issues than those brought up by the policy literature. Because, as David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock, argue in a brilliant 2005 article ‘The Fiction of Development’, policy and academic writing about development tends to construct development problems in particular ways which justify interventions by technical ‘experts’, whereas fiction can emphasise different aspects of the development process – the human, the moral, the political – which are too often ignored in academic or policy accounts.
The first novel I’m going to review here on Development Book Review is Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, shortlisted for the Booker prize last year. It’s a gripping story but has a serious purpose too: the author describes it as “a wake-up call to a dwindling nation – Nigeria.” The book tells the story of four brothers, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin, growing up in the 1990s in the town of Akure in southwestern Nigeria. Their father – an employee of the Nigerian Central Bank, a strict disciplinarian and a believer in the power of ‘Western education’ – suddenly vanishes from the boys’ lives when he is transferred to another town. In his absence, the boys secretly start to go fishing in the dirty and supposedly cursed Omi-Ala river. One day, on their way home, they come across the half-naked madman Abulu, who makes a graphic prophecy about how Ikenna will be killed by one of his brothers. From this point, the story unfolds with grim predictability. Ikenna is consumed by fear that the prophecy will come true and starts to become estranged from his brothers, stops eating and grows sick. One by one, the other family members start to become transformed by the madness that is tearing their family apart. The mother is driven to a nervous breakdown while the father loses his strength: his dreams that his children would grow up into great people turn “maggoty” and then into a “dead weight”.
The story is, at one level, a powerful human tragedy which is told with simplicity and grace. But how can we understand the book as a “wake-up call to a dwindling nation”? We can start by not seeing the story as reflecting some kind of essentialised “Africa”, as some Western reviewers have done. This is Fiammetta Rocco in the New York Times:
“In his exploration of the mysterious and the murderous, of the terrors that can take hold of the human mind, of the colors of life in Africa, with its vibrant fabrics and its trees laden with fruit, and most of all in his ability to create dramatic tension in this most human of African stories, Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe.”
This seems to me insulting to both Obioma and Achebe. The Fishermen is not primarily about “the colors of life in Africa” or “vibrant fabrics and trees laden with fruit”! Achebe’s fiction also has a much more serious purpose than Rocco suggests – he may be a master of dramatic tension but he is also trying to construct quite a detailed analysis of some serious problems in contemporary Nigeria – see for example Ikem’s brilliant speeches in Anthills of the Savannah.
A more productive way of understanding The Fishermen as wake-up call is to read it as an allegory of British colonial rule in Nigeria. This is an interpretation Obioma has personally suggested in an interview with Michigan Quarterly Review. Although the story is set in the 1990s, and features no British people at all, it tells of how a stable social unit – a family – is torn apart by an external influence – Abulu the madman’s prophecy. Importantly, the destruction of the family is not only driven by the prophecy itself but by the way the family members believe in it – just as Nigerians enabled British rule by colluding with the colonizers and believing their words. In one of the two epigraphs to the book, a poem by South African poet Mazisi Kunene, the link between madman and British colonizer is made quite clear:
“The madman has entered our house with violence
Defiling our sacred grounds
Claiming the single truth of the universe…”
It’s not only the violence of colonisation which is there but also the insistence that the coloniser has a monopoly on the truth. Whilst the brothers may at first dismiss the madman’s babblings as nonsense, gradually they come to accept his version of the truth as incontestable, as inevitable.
For all this, if The Fishermen is a wake-up call, I was left puzzled to understand how Obioma would like Nigerians to wake up from their current situation. On the one hand, the violence within the family triggered by the madman’s prophecy is reminiscent of the violence between different tribes in Nigeria which was in some respects produced by colonisation. This would suggest that ‘waking up’ would involve finding some kind of reconciliation between tribes. (One of the brothers, Obembe, specifically suggests in the book that the family’s troubles came because the brothers were divided). On the other hand, Obioma has talked of the way that the British tried to create a nation out of different tribes, and how this was “tantamount to a prophecy of a madman”. This suggests that waking up may involve some kind of partition for the different tribal ‘nations’ – a quite different interpretation which I struggle to find evidence for in the book itself.
Of course, a novel does not need to conclude with ‘recommendations for action’ and the tensions in the book are part of what makes it interesting. Ultimately, while The Fishermen is much more than the essential African story which some western reviewers have made it out to be, it is no political manifesto. Perhaps it is best read as something like a Greek tragedy, showing how human flaws, credulousness and bad luck can lead to the collapse of any family – or nation.