Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Satin Island – Tom McCarthy’s second novel shortlisted for the Man Booker award – is the story of U (that’s all we ever know of his name) and his work, as an anthropologist/corporate ethnographer, at the Company (that’s all we ever know of its name). The Company provides their clients, including multinational corporations and national governments, with information on how to ‘contextualize and nuance their services and products’ and ‘elaborate and frame regenerative strategies’.
These days, everyone at the Company’s central London premises is especially thrilled to have been awarded the contract for the Koob-Sassen Project. U doesn’t reveal much about the project, for legal and other reasons, but it is so huge, so pervasive, that ‘it will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this’.
In his underground office, U works — in addition to the Koob-Sassen Project — on ‘the Great Report’, which his boss, Peyman, also calls ‘the Document’, ‘the Book’, ‘the First and Last Word on our age’ and ‘not just a book: the fucking Book‘. U, himself, believes that, while his ”official’ function, as a corporate ethnographer, was to garner meaning from all types of situation, ‘I sometimes allowed myself to think that, in fact, things were precisely the other way around: that my job was to put meaning in the world, not take from it’.
Toward this end, U considers his building’s ventilation system, flies to many international conferences, watches videos with Daniel (his colleague whose speciality is visual culture), obsesses over oil spills, investigates mysteries involving unopened parachutes, ponders the phenomenon of land-diving rituals and the cargo cult in Vanuatu, and mulls over the mutterings of his hero, Claude Lévi-Strauss. He also spends some time with his IT systems analyst friend Petr, who is dying of cancer, and sleeping with Madison, a woman he’d met a few months earlier in Budapest.
We never learn much about any of these people, except that they seem to either talk in circles around one another or, in Peyman’s case, speak in vague aphorisms, such as ‘Location is irrelevant: what matters is not where something is, but rather where it leads’, and ‘What are objects? Bundles of relations’.
We do learn that one character dies. And toward the end, Madison reveals an event in her past which is harrowing in its own right, but especially so in this novel where plot and character development seem so unimportant to the author.
U narrates most of this in a style that will be familiar to anyone who’s read any of McCarthy’s previous novels. Here’s an example:
That night, I eventually had a splendid dream. A rich and vivid one: one full of splendour. I was flying, like Daniel and Peyman in their helicopter, over a harbour by a city. It was a great, imperial city, the world’s greatest — all of them, from all periods: Carthage, London, Alexandria, Vienna, Byzantium and New York, all superimposed on one another the way things are in dreams. We’d left the city and were flying above the harbour. This was full of bustle: tug-boats, steamers, yachts, you name, bobbing and criss-crossing in water whose ridges and wave-troughs glinted in the sun, though it was night-time. Out in the harbour — some way out, separated from the city by swathes of this choppy water — was an excrescence, a protuberance, a lump: an island. Was it man-made? Possibly. Its sides rose steeply from the sea; they were constructed of cement, or old bricks. The island was dark in hue; yet, like the sea, it seemed somehow lit up. As we approached it — flying quite low, parallel to the water — the buildings on it loomed larger and larger.
Some clever language, sharp descriptions, insightful links — but all of it seems so over-written, verbose, prolix, pleonastic. For the record, the paragraph quoted above continues for another 312 words, six more colons and six more em-dashes. (I’ve counted them so you don’t have to.)
To be sure, there’s a restless intelligence at work here, and the word-play does elicit an occasional smile of appreciation. But in this novel of ideas where the idea seems to be that everything is connected, and everything, even nothing, has meaning, all this fancy prose should provide — if not a unique insight — at least something more than a hard-earned grin.
The Fishermen, the debut novel by 28-year-old Chigozie Obioma is an account of the lives of four brothers — Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Ben, who range in age from 15 to 9 — over the course of several months in the mid-1990s in the small Nigerian town of Akure, when Nigeria was under the rule of General Sani Abacha.
The story is narrated by the adult Ben, who recounts his middle-class family, their lives inside the family compound, and their lives beyond the gate. Their father, Eme, works for the Central Bank of Nigeria. Eme believes that ‘Western education’ and discipline are critical to personal success and the future of the country, and he proudly proclaims that his sons will ‘dip their hands into rivers, seas, oceans of this life and become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers’. Eme also believes in the whip, which he calls the Guerdon, and he uses it on his boys whenever he feels their discipline is lacking. Their mother cares for two younger children when she’s not working in her shop in the town market; the four older boys all attend the same school.
This quotidian life is upset when Eme announces that he has been transferred to a bank in Yola, a 15-hour drive north. His wife pleads with him, ‘What kind of job takes a man away from bringing up his growing sons?’ Emre, ambitious himself, is unmoved, but warns his sons, ‘I will call her regularly, and if I hear any bad news, I mean, any funny acts at all, I’ll give you the Guerdon for them’.
Despite the best efforts their mother, within weeks of their father’s departure, the ‘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, vandalise the neighbors’ houses and, worst of all, join with other truant boys and head for the Omi-Ala to go fishing.
The Omi-Ala river was once thought of as a god. It supplied fish and fresh drinking water to the townspeople, who erected shrines in its name. With the arrival of the European colonists and their Bible, and the discovery of a woman’s mutilated corpse in the river and animal carcasses on its banks, the attitude toward the river, and much else, changed.
But their fishing feels like an innocent lark until one day, when returning from a productive day at the river, they run into Abula, the town madman, whose physical appearance Ben describes this way:
His face was fecund with a beard that stretched from the side of his face down to his jaw. His moustache stood over his mouth as though it had been applied there by fine brush strokes of charcoal paint. His hair was dirty, long, and tangled. . . [h]e carried on his body a variety of odours, the most noticeable of which was a faecal smell that wafted at me like a drone of flies when I drew closer to him. . . He reeked of sweat accumulated inside the dense growth of hair around his pubic regions and armpits. He smelt of rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus, and of bodily fluids and wastes. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear he sometime wore. . . He had the smell of . . . trashed clothes in the large bin behind the tailor’s shop, of leftover meat at the open abattoir in the town. . . He smelt of unknown things, of strange elements, and of fearsome and forgotten things. He smelt of death.
Many legends and beliefs surrounded Abula, including that he possessed the power of prophecy. The boys thought nothing of this until he addressed Ikenna by name, somehow, and predicted that he would be murdered by the hands of one of his brothers.
The language and tone of The Fisherman gracefully treads the water between the old and new, the familiar English novel and the African storytelling tradition. The rhythm of the words and use of repetition are hypnotic. The story is reminiscent of Greek tragedy, in which the hubris of a good and well-intentioned man sets in motion a series of tragic events, from which, through their own actions, no character can escape.
Obioma has brought an entire family, village, country and era to life in this heartbreaking story that closes unexpectedly, quietly, with a sense of hope and redemption.
If critics and prevailing opinion are correct, neither Satin Island or The Fishermen is likely to win the Man Booker prize. If that proves true, please don’t ignore at least one of the also-rans. Years from now, you’ll be able to boast that you read Chigozie Obioma’s first book before it became a standard text.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.