FEBRUARY 13, 2019
CHIGOZIE OBIOMA’S SECOND NOVEL is a beguiling and ambitious follow-up to the 2015 Man Booker shortlisted The Fishermen. Whereas the latter is at times a claustrophobically provincial family drama fashioned after the biblical story of Cain and Abel, An Orchestra of Minorities is a hefty, dense transnational reimagination of the Odyssey. The novel’s plot is a truly modern tragedy: a rural poultry farmer, Chinonso, interrupts a young woman standing on a bridge, about to commit suicide; the two fall in love, but her wealthy, well-traveled family disapproves, and they seek to humiliate him into ending the relationship. Instead, an old classmate convinces Chinonso to apply to university abroad in Cyprus — a scam that only the naïvest reader could be surprised by. The friend, an “original yahoo boy,” absconds with Chinonso’s livelihood, which includes the proceeds of the sale of his family farm, leaving him alone and vulnerable in Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus.
This epic source material and premise are suitable to Obioma’s mythic aspirations. The conceit of the novel, which is certain to garner much discussion, is that it is narrated entirely by the protagonist’s chi, the Igbo guardian spirit. The chi is offering testimony to the creator Chukwu, on behalf of his host. Each of the novel’s three acts begin with incantations, songs of address and praise for Chukwu, which also reveal many of the inner workings of the Igbo universe. The effect of this narrative device is uneven — some of the most imaginative and vital moments in the text occur as a result of the chi’s superhuman timescale of memory, and his ability to transcend his host’s corporeality; however, there are moments early on when the narration draws too much attention to itself. Despite a page of epigrams and two pages of diagrams outlining Igbo cosmology, Obioma seems unsure whether his reader will be able to fully grasp the universe of his novel.
I can’t blame Obioma for this hand-holding, and the effusive, repetitive nature of the chi’s narration is actually a deft explanation for some of the more distracting moments of cultural exposition. Although he participates in a novelistic tradition extending at least as far back as Amos Tutuola’s 1952 book The Palm-Wine Drinkard, this particular West African genre, often characterized by a porous boundary between Earth and the Spirit World, is not well defined in literary scholarship. Too often, it is seen as an extension of the magical realism that originated in Latin America, a move that satisfies the critical desire to collect all postcolonial fiction under a single umbrella.
Indeed, the tension between honoring cultural specificity and building global underclass solidarity is a constant concern in Obioma’s novel. An Orchestra of Minorities reads as an attempt to write a contemporary African novel in the style of the “first generation” of nationalist writers; however, while African writers of the first generation were concerned with imagining the national community and recovering a cultural past lost to the violence of colonialism, Obioma’s novel carefully elides the nation. Certainly, our protagonist is Nigerian, but his Igbo heritage as well as his identification with a global proletariat are to him far more important. It is from this impulse toward the transnational that the novel’s somewhat off-putting title is derived:
All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilizations been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed, and killed. With all these people, he’d come to share a common fate. They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.
Clearly, while the novel offers commonality among the world’s most downtrodden, that commonality is born of a shared hopelessness, and not any revolutionary consciousness. The novel extends the familiar literary theme of fate, past fatalism, to a place of almost abject despair.
I suspect I am not the only reader of West African fiction who, upon learning about the premise of An Orchestra of Minorities, was immediately reminded of Akwaeke Emezi’s triumphant debut, Freshwater, from early 2018. Itself narrated in part by a malevolent Ogbanje inhabiting the body of the young protagonist, Freshwater skillfully combines traditional Igbo beliefs with more modern ideas about mental health care in order to interrogate both discourses’ assumptions about what we would have once called “madness.” Perhaps because I recently taught Freshwater to my undergraduate literature class, as well as the inclusion of a suicidal character as the instigator of the novel’s action, I was anticipating a similar engagement with mental health and illness. However, Obioma’s novel actively resists such a reading. Early on, our chi narrator explains, “For when a foreign spirit embodies a person, it is difficult to get it out! This is why we have the mentally ill, the epileptic, men with abominable passions, murderers of their own parents and others!” It is in such moments, when the chi offers absolutes that could cause serious harm to his modern host or others around him, that Obioma invites us to question the place of the old gods in a new world, one from which the guardian spirits are sometimes ill-equipped to guard their hosts.
It would be a mistake, however, to read Chinonso’s despair as also belonging to Obioma. The chi narrator, having guarded other men at least as far back as the first contact between the local Igbo people and white colonialists, through slavery and the Middle Passage, and into the contemporary moment, offers a vantage point that productively exceeds the individual. For example, after Chinonso’s victimization by his scam-artist friend becomes clear, his chi recalls:
Onwanaetirioha, I was dwelling in a host who did not live beyond the age of thirteen when the first white men came to Ihembosi. The fathers laughed at them and would go about for days on end mocking the stupidity of the White Man. Ijango-ijango, I recall vividly — for my memory isn’t like that of man — that one of the reasons the fathers laughed and thought of these people as mad was because of the idea of “banking.” They had wondered how a man in his right senses could take his money and sometimes all his livelihood and deposit it with others. This was beyond folly, the wise fathers thought. But now the children of the fathers willingly do this. And in ways that still defy my understanding, when they go, they receive their money back and even sometimes more than they had put in!
While this aside underscores Chinonso’s frustrating naïveté, it also sets Chukwu, and thus the reader, within a timeframe where capitalism is new and untested. While many recent transnational African novels seek to frame the history of the West’s oppression of Africa and its people as the history of capitalism, it also offers a perspective where capitalism is new and absurd, allowing readers to imagine a world that could exist without it.
Obioma’s sophomore effort is imperfect, but impressive in its ambition. At times, his writing feels conservative to the point of being regressive, particularly in regard to gender (a problem he was able to largely avoid in The Fishermen by having almost no woman characters). Chinonso is pitiful, which, over the course of nearly 500 pages, becomes grating at times. All that said, An Orchestra of Minorities is epically imaginative, heartbreaking, and worth the read.