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Chigozie Obioma listed for $78,000 Booker prize

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Chigozie Obioma listed for Naira 15.5 million Booker Prize
Chigozie Obioma listed for Naira 15.5 million Booker Prize

The Fishermen, a novel by Nigeria’s budding writer, Chigozie Obioma, is among the 13 novels shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize for fiction written in English. The list was published Thursday, July 30 and all listed authors are in contention for the 50,000-pound ($78,000 or N15.6 million) prize.

Marlon James is nominated for his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, the story of the attempted assassination of reggae singer Bob Marley and its aftermath in the Jamaica of the 1970s and early 80s.

Also in contention are 2007 winner Anne Enright and writers from India, New Zealand, Ireland, the U.S. and Britain. The list will be whittled down to six on September 15 and the winner will be announced on October 13 in London’s Guildhall. First awarded in 1969, the prize’s list of previous winners features many of the literary giants of the last four decades, from Salman Rushdie and Hilary Mantel to Iris Murdoch and Ian McEwan.

The rules of the prize changed in 2013 to open it to writers beyond Britain and the Commonwealth. Last year’s winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, sold almost 800,000 copies worldwide.

After considering 156 books for this year’s Booker prize, the five judges chose the following 13 novels for the 2015 long list: Bill Clegg (US) Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape); Anne Enright (Ireland) The Green Road (Jonathan Cape); Marlon James (Jamaica) A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications); Laila Lalami (US) The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing); Tom McCarthy (UK) Satin Island (Jonathan Cape); Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) The Fishermen (One, Pushkin Press); Andrew O’Hagan (UK) The Illuminations (Faber & Faber); Marilynne Robinson (US) Lila (Virago); Anuradha Roy (India) Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus); Sunjeev Sahota (UK) The Year of the Runaways (Picador); Anna Smaill (New Zealand) The Chimes (Sceptre); Anne Tyler (US) A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus); and Hanya Yanagihara (US) A Little Life (Picador).

The Fishermen is Obioma’s first novel and has enjoyed rave reviews on BBC and New York Times.

This year’s most promising African newcomer may well prove to be Chigozie Obioma. An Ibo, like Nigeria’s best-known novelist, Chinua Achebe, Obioma was born in southwestern Nigeria and has recently joined the faculty at the University of Nebraska. He is still in his 20s.

“The Fishermen” is a biblical parable set in the 1990s, when Nigeria was under the military dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha. Nine-year-old Benjamin, the narrator, is the youngest of four brothers. His father is a progressive man who works for the Central Bank of Nigeria. Education and professional ambition, he believes, are the only antidotes to the canker of corruption that has spread into every corner of his country’s life. Benjamin’s father wants his children to “dip their hands into rivers, seas, oceans of this life and become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers.”

Instead, when their father is transferred to another town, leaving their mother in charge not only of the four boys and their baby sister but of a food stall in the local market, the boys do what boys everywhere do when they realize they’re not supervised: They begin to play truant. Despite their mother’s every effort, within three months their father’s “long arm that often wielded the whip, the instrument of caution, snapped like a tired tree branch. Then we broke free.” The brothers fight with rival boys, smash the neighbors’ windows. And whenever possible they make for the Omi-Ala River, which runs through the town.

Once pure, the Omi-Ala had supplied early settlers with fish and clean drinking water. As is true throughout Africa, the “Omi-Ala was once believed to be a god; people worshiped it.” Now, like so much else in Nigeria, it is more like a sewer. ­Animal carcasses lie on its banks. The mutilated corpse of a woman has been found in the water, “her vital body parts ­dismembered.”

When the boys go there to fish, they catch more than they bargained for. Walking home one day, having hooked two big tilapia, they come upon a man asleep under a mango tree. “He was robed from head to foot in filth. As he rose spryly to stand, some of the filth rose with him, while some was left in patches on the ground. He had a fresh scar on his face just ­below his chin, and his back was caked with a dripping mess from some dead mango in a state of putrefaction.” He is Abulu, a madman known both for his soothsaying and for his unsavory habit of masturbating in public. When Abulu begins shouting at the boys, he calls the eldest, Ikenna, by name, although he has never met him and doesn’t know him. Ikenna, he prophesies, will die, killed by one of his own brothers.

As the weight of the prophecy settles over the boys, Obioma intensifies his focus on the bad luck that afflicts their family. The boys’ mother, unhinged by grief, has a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized. Their father, gaunt and gray-bearded, is seen visibly to crumple from the inside as his eminence as head of the family is compromised by his inability to protect those he loves. And then there are the brothers. If the prophecy is true, which of them will prove to be the murderer? Guilt, grief and lies bind the boys even while forcing them apart.

The political implications of “The Fishermen” are obvious, though never ­overstated. Countries can take a wrong turn, Obioma suggests, just as people can. In six decades of independence, Nigeria has had no shortage of lies, soothsayers and madmen. And no shortage of troubles.

As things fall apart and the family’s center cannot hold, Obioma’s readers will ­begin to recall another work of fiction from Africa, a book that, after more than half a century, has never been out of print. 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.

By Chigozie Obioma
297 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $26.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]


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