Fisherman’s Blues tells a rich and immediate story, but it raises more questions about the future than it can answer.
Documenting the lives of Senegalese fishermen on the western edge of Africa, Anna Badkhen’s book Fisherman’s Blues taps into a drama that takes place in a primordial milieu. Fishing is among the oldest professions, pre-dating even horticulture and animal husbandry, evolving with humans and technology until it today resembles just another massive-scale industrial extractive enterprise. But in Badkhen’s florid prose—she even drops in a use of “funambulist,” one of the best words in the English language—history is turned back. If not back to the original humans who huddled in seaside caves in Africa and lived on mollusks and fish wrestled from tidal pools by hand, far enough to evoke something ineffable and “authentic” to the human experience.
In contrast to how the book makes the reader feel, Badkhen argues the opposite. Tracing the history of fishing villages she demonstrates that they are in fact modern inventions which didn’t even exist a century ago. The author shows how economic strife, postcolonial legacy and the global market’s 20th century surge in demand for seafood created these enterprising communities. The image of a teenage boy casting a net over the side of a wooden boat in the hopes of filling his stomach may seem timeless; in Senegal, it’s as thoroughly modern as electricity and statehood.
This is the essence of Fisherman’s Blues, a languid, Technicolor exploration of coastal life in western Africa today. Badkhen moved to Joal, Senegal and embedded with the local community for research; she rode in fishing boats, going on overnight trips. She visited boat-making workshop, chatted with fishmongers and fishwives and stayed up late in the bars and beach shelters with the locals. Occasionally, she hauled nets herself. Rarely rhetorical, the author barely clings to a semblance of narrative structure, instead reveling in pure description, bringing to life a set of villages whose people embrace polygamy, Sufi Islam and a paradoxical mixture of rural hinterlands-isolationist viewpoints along with their globalized cultural and economic interests.
Such description is the book’s strongest and weakest point. Badkhen immerses the reader into the fisherman’s shanties in a place so off-the-radar for most readers as to be unimaginable. She gives readers an intimate familiarity with a strange land. But her approach is also lacking. Joal and its cadre of entrepreneurs could easily form the basis for a sweeping argument about globalization, climate change and capitalist rapacity. Badkhen approaches such a thesis when Senegalese locals complain about the increasing scarcity of fish. She seems to want to argue that the fishermen are self-defeating, pulling fish out of the ocean faster than stocks can be replenished. It’s a Catch-22: the Senegalese men fish because they have no other choices, but this desperation will lead to the depletion of this natural resource and the end of their livelihood. The men didn’t cause this problem, but are implicated. And of course it is these poor, non-white and postcolonial peoples who will suffer first and most from overfishing, climate change and the ravages of capitalism. Fisherman’s Blues tells a rich and immediate story, but it raises more questions about the future than it can answer.