The self-fulfilling prophecy is an ancient and fascinating component of literature. From Oedipus to Macbeth and beyond, characters have wrestled with disturbing or tempting prophecies, often with tragic results. As we survey the wreckage of their lives, we wonder to what extent the events were indeed fated or foreseen, and to what extent the characters’ own actions brought about their downfall. It’s a great device for exploring the concept of free will.
A recent addition to the literature is The Fishermen by Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma.
In a way, this is a simple tale of a family that falls apart. The “fishermen” of the title are four brothers ranging in age from about 9 to 15 who take advantage of their father’s prolonged absence to go fishing at a forbidden river. On their way back one day, a local madman/prophet tells the oldest, Ikenna, that he will soon die at the hands of a fisherman, i.e. one of his own brothers.
It’s also a political novel. In the background, Obioma sketches some of the broader events in 1990s Nigeria and how they affect the brothers—they are caught up, for example, in the excitement of a rally for 1993 presidential candidate MKO Abiola with his slogan “Hope ’93”. Abiola was widely believed to have won the elections, but the results were annulled and General Sani Abacha seized power. Abiola later died in detention, and the destruction of hope in society as a whole has clear parallels with the destruction of the brothers and their father’s ambitions for them to be lawyers, doctors, pilots, etc.
I enjoyed the novel and liked the way the stories of family and nation were told together, without making the parallels too obvious or strained. I liked the concept of the prophecy working on Ikenna’s mind and driving him away from his brothers.
The way it was done, however, seemed too extreme to be believable. The brothers are presented at the beginning as being incredibly close, utterly loyal and loving towards each other and towards their parents. Yet after the prophecy, Ikenna immediately becomes rageful, paranoid, hateful, lashing out inexplicably at his whole family. It’s not a slow poisoning that gradually turns him against them, but a sudden and complete metamorphosis. The way the other brothers react, too, seems very extreme. Those few words of prophecy send a healthy, normal family into a complete tailspin in no time at all. It felt as if truth of character was being sacrificed for reasons of plot and symbolism.
Despite this reservation, I’d still recommend The Fishermen as a well-told tale of tragedy and a window on the lost hopes and dreams of a nation.
Have you read The Fishermen? How about another work of Nigerian literature? I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations!