An Orchestra of Minorities
Chigozie Obioma’s spectacular second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, begins with the quotation of an Igbo proverb: “If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be the heroes in the stories of the hunt.” As I reluctantly turned the last page of this thoroughly engrossing and moving fiction, something I once learnt about horses floated into my mind: like many prey, horses have eyes on either side of their head so as to see a predator approaching from behind. But this gives them a blind spot that can prevent them from seeing danger that is directly in front of them. Clever enemies, like serious trouble, have a way of creeping up in plain sight.
Chinonso, a young and unworldly poultry farmer in Nigeria, has been left bereft by the death of his father. His mother passed years earlier and his sister has run off. Chinonso lives in the family home and cares tenderly for his flock, taking comfort in the company of his vulnerable and defenceless chickens, doing his best to protect them from hawks with his slingshot. When he fails, and one is taken, he listens empathically to the peculiar sound of weeping hens – the “orchestra of minorities” of the title.
One day, Chinonso encounters a beautiful woman, Ndali, just as she is about to jump from a bridge. Their meeting is the start of an unpredictable roller-coaster journey that will deliver Chinonso to worlds unknown and extremities of joy and sorrow, ecstasy and pain. An Orchestra of Minorities is a nailbiting, edge-of-the-seat-gripping, eyebrows-to-the-ceiling-and-jaw-to-the-floor joy ride of a tale – a quest, a love story and a thriller. The fun and the art of it lies in the delightfully digressive and reflective narration of this fast-paced story, seven years after the meeting on the bridge, and with Chinonso suspended in mortal and moral danger by his chi or guardian spirit. The distraught chi has fled his host’s body to address himself directly to Chukwu, the creator of the universe, who reigns over Eluigwe, “the land of eternal, luminous light” in the cosmology of the Igbo people, to explain in detail the circumstances that have brought his host to this pass. It’s an extraordinary breach of the usual norms of the spiritual world. The chi, who is pleading for clemency for Chinonso, explains that “if what I fear has happened is true ... let it be understood that he has committed this great crime in error, unknowingly”.
We are kept in delicious and agonising suspense as to what this “great crime” might be for some 500 pages as the loquacious, fretful chi relates Chinonso’s story, peppering his tale with quotations from the wisdom of the “great fathers” as well as observations on the quirks and foibles of human nature. “I have seen it many times,” he says, and you can almost picture him gravely shaking his heavy, incorporeal head. The story pours out in a sparkling admixture of Nigerian English, pidgin and Igbo phrases, enriched by proverbs and metaphors: “… even the hems of the garments of [Chinonso’s] brightest days were fringed with threads of sorrowful darkness”.
Chinonso’s story thus unfolds in two simultaneous realms. The first is Uwa, the domain of people, animals and their physical environment. In this case, it is a Nigeria scarred by its colonial legacy, with a corrupt and inefficient government and a society rent from within by class differences. Igbos continue to feel the pain and injustice of the Biafran War, fought for independence and safety but lost with starvation and mass death. The second realm is that of the spirit world, richly populated with gods and ghosts and sprites of all kinds. The membrane between the two realms, the chi tells us, is “leaf-thin”. The chi experiences them simultaneously, resulting at times in a kind of divine comedy. He waxes lyrical about Ndali’s chi “clothed in the bronze skin of light”, just as Ndali, who is driving, honks and brakes, yelling, “Jesus Christ!”
The irrepressible chi shoots out of Chinonso’s body from time to time to check in with other chis, survey the landscape for malicious spirits, or simply to satisfy his uncontainable curiosity, as when Chinonso takes his first aeroplane flight and the chi goes off exploring the plane. Privy to his host’s thinking, the chi is able to flash thoughts into Chinonso’s head but, as he broods, “… a chi cannot go against the will of its host, nor can it compel its host against his will”. If a host will not listen to his chi, the chi must compromise, for “Insanity is the result of an irreconcilable difference between a man and his chi.” In Chinonso’s chi, Obioma has surely created one of the most memorable, funny and enchanting narrative voices in contemporary literature.
While inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, An Orchestra of Minorities, as the author writes in an afterword, is “firmly rooted in Igbo cosmology, a complex system of beliefs and traditions that once guided – and in part still guides – my people”. Helpfully, he devotes two pages at the start of the book to charting that cosmology. Some of it will be familiar to readers of the “father of African literature”, Chinua Achebe, who, like Obioma and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (one of my favourite living writers), is also Igbo. All three have a capacity for creating complex, captivating characters who must negotiate a rapidly changing world, shaped and harmed by the forces of colonialism. But if Nigeria today is a “land of lack, of man-pass-man”, of kidnappers, bullies, scammers and shortages, this is also because, the chi tells us, the children of the great fathers have abandoned the old ways.
What will happen to poor, tormented Chinonso? His chi quotes “the venerable fathers of old”, who say that “tomorrow is pregnant, and no one knows what it will birth”. That Obioma, who writes like an old master, is only 33, should fill us with joy and anticipation well beyond the final page.
Abacus, 528pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "Chigozie Obioma, An Orchestra of Minorities". Subscribe here.