A Poultry Farmer’s Song of Burden in the Face of Fate Chigozie Obioma's An Orchestra of Minorities

Influenced by Homer’s Odyssey, Chigozie Obioma’s latest novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, blends the ancient and the modern in telling the story of a young Igbo poultry farmer in post-independence Nigeria. In this novel, Obioma whose debut, The Fishermen, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2015, portrays life, love and pain as different yet connected entities. Readers will immediately observe tradition and mysticism as the similarities that connect The Fishermen—which traces the lives of four brothers that walk into destruction after a prophecy from a mad man—to An Orchestra of Minorities, which portrays the life of a man as narrated by his chi.

The novel begins with Chinonso, Obioma’s protagonist, attempting to persuade a stranger from jumping over a bridge and ending her life. Chinonso drops two birds into the water to convince the woman that jumping to her death is painful. As the birds struggle for their lives after the drop, he is able to convince the lady that ‘that is what will happen if somebody fall inside there.’ While impulsive on Chinonso’s part, this very act of saving a stranger’s life changes his life, too. Shortly after this encounter, Chinonso embarks on a quest for companionship and passion on his uncle’s plea to get a wife. A few visits to a brothel and a short sexual relationship with a groundnut hawker did not stop him from remembering and, consequently, desiring to see the woman from the bridge.

Instrumented by luck or fate, Chinonso finds Ndali, the lady from the bridge, again. Out of the sense of gratitude or the desire to be loved again, Chinonso and Ndali, members of two opposite social classes, become lovers. Knowing ‘love changes the temperature of a man’s life,’ Ndali’s arrival into Chinonso’s life improves the quality of his life and his work but it also reveals his insecurities and weaknesses. Obioma portrays affection and compassion as tools that invigorate Chinonso’s life and both serve as bases for the manifestation of his weaknesses. Despite evident improvements in his life, his love for Ndali is obsessive and depicts him as a character not critical of his judgements and decisions.

Although An Orchestra of Minorities is not fully courted by the conventions of magical realism that solidify Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, some elements of magical realism are evident in Obioma’s representation of mysticism and elements of Igbo cosmology. Noteworthy is the evocation of the spirits of the metaphysical realm, especially the chi and how it reveres the domains of Chukwu, the ancestors and the composition of Benmuo and Uwa in its hybrid account. Chukwu, the Supreme Being, and other figures of the aforementioned domains are recognized and referred to while the chi discusses relatable and known subjects like Biafra, love, politics, birds, Cyprus, scam, pain. An illustration of Igbo Cosmology and the composition of man therein, which the novel provides, also show Obioma’s purposeful explanation of the unseen realm he imports to this story.

Obioma’s portrayal of the chi as man’s other identity is critical to the characterization of Chinonso and the writer’s storytelling. The chi is the writer’s narrative voice and Chinonso’s unseen companion and envoy in Eluigwe—heavenly place. Although mystical, Obioma’s portrayal is poignant enough for readers to see the powerlessness of the chi. This clarity restrains readers who may not understand the totality of the Igbo cosmology from arrogating powers to the chi. This is evident in the narrator’s submission: ‘there are times when a man cannot fully understand his feelings, and neither can his chi. His chi is often at a loss at those times.’ This powerlessness also extends to the chi’s inability to change the fate of its host or alter the trajectory of its host’s life. So as the chapter entitled ‘Disgraced’ announces the beginning of Chinonso’s end, his chi is fully understood as a mere omnipresent companion and also the voice reporting the account of the life of its host.

The modern life of man also takes a primary place in the novel. The socio-economic condition and the politics of Chinonso’s Nigeria are not only contextual but also instruments in the rise and fall of Obioma’s main character. Obioma shows the socio-political instability in Nigeria and how it plays out in the economic realities of the country. He makes references to political figures that have enriched themselves at the detriment of millions and an unstable environment defined by the activities of a movement like MASSOB. He also portrays Yahoo-Yahoo through the character, Jamike, as a tool in telling Chinonso’s story and as a social problem that deserves more than mentioning.

The beginning of Chinonso’s end is achieved through his desire to unburden himself of the affliction of discrimination and oppression that ushers and trails the steps of the society’s downtrodden. Chinonso becomes a voyager for the sake of love and Ndali, who is also ready to go against her family’s stance on her uneducated lover. As the events of her father’s birthday is later seen as a symbol and not just an episode in Chinonso’s series of disgrace, he begins a faulty adventure in Northern Cyprus. Desiring to do anything to marry Ndali as he mentions in a conversation with Jamike, a friend with a complicated presence in his life, he fails to critically think of the consequences of his actions and the weight of his new adventure. He sells his house and his poultry business in order seek a better life and a resemblance of what Ndali’s family wants. His struggles in Nigeria explain why he decides to find a better life in an underdeveloped country like Cyprus. Obioma tacitly highlights the troubles in the life of the downtrodden through his careful inquest into Chinonso’s sad and gory experiences. In capturing the downtrodden, the singers of the song of minorities, the narrator expatiates with resonant images:

‘…the Nigerian girl near the police station, the man at the airport, all those who have been captured against their will to do what they did not want to do either in the past or the present, all who have been forced into joining an entity they do not wish to belong to, and countless others. All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilisations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed and killed.’

Like other painstaking writers that build events to a climax for a riveting denouement, Obioma leaves signs and symbols for readers’ understanding of the fall that eventually visits Chinonso. For a man that loves obsessively, Chinonso’s rage comes to play in the latter part of the novel. His desire to call Ndali ‘mummy’, his passion for his gosling and the pain he endured when he mourned its death signify how love grows into obsession for him. Since ‘fate was a strange language which the life of a man and his chi are never able to learn,’ the destruction of Chinonso is accentuated by his failures. The years spent in the wilderness of a foreign country precedes a period of psychological and physical implosion.

This slow destruction is down to what his chi understands as ‘…nothing truly belongs to anyone,’ and ‘a man may own something for as long as it remains with him. Once he leaves it, he may lose it.’ Duped of the proceeds of the sale of his father’s house and his business, he is unjustly jailed in Cyprus and later violated in prison. On his return to Nigeria, he struggles to come to terms with the magnitude of his loss, especially when he realises Ndali is married with a child. He loses Ndali, his inheritance, his peace and his sanity. Rage like Achebe’s Okonkwo and regret like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Stevens’ in The Remains of the Day become the sea that drowns him.

Rich in folklore and grounded in the existence of divinity, Obioma mystifies the mundane. The complexity Obioma attaches to everyday life involves an existence tied to the metaphysical realm. The tales and legends that precedes one’s existence and the polemics of the binary opposition of life and death as consequence or reward shape the chi’s confessional account of the life of Chinonso. Obioma presents the chi as a companion and as an intercessor. The role of intercession is seen from the First Incantation where the chi stands in the magnificent court of Bechukwu for Chinonso, knowing the ‘kind of things he has done is that for which Ala, the custodian of the earth, must seek retribution’. When the chi finds it impossible to make his burden light, it is also quick to let the spirits know its host did not intend to harm another man when his travails in Cyprus took him to jail. This incorporation of good and evil, morality and spirituality, and how they condition life and death in Igbo traditional belief system orders the author’s identities: Igbo man and a creative writer.

Obioma’s dual representation of man in a twenty-first-century society that still leans on its age-old customs and traditions is a creative idea worthy of credit. Life, under the watchful eyes of his chi and other metaphysical powers, fails to inoculate Chinonso against fate and destiny. However, Obioma does not leave Chinonso to the mercy of fate alone and the say of the metaphysical realm. A deeply stratified Nigeria and a polarized world are useful tools in working towards the destruction orchestrated by self. Scarred in Nigeria and damaged in Cyprus, the groaning sound of the downtrodden, Obioma’s minorities, becomes an orchestra for Chinonso in the face of injustice and oppression. His life incarnates the experiences of the minorities. In putting a balance to this duality, Obioma gives Chinonso slight relief through material recovery before his final implosion with a devastating act that condemns him. A huge part of the burden of blame is taken off the society that leaves him helpless and the metaphysical realm that knows the fate of man before his birth.

It is also worth thinking about how Obioma portrays Ndali as another major character. Chinonso may be the focus of Obioma’s attention but characters like Ndali are denied the privilege of being appreciated by readers without the shadow of Chinonso. Readers may find it difficult to connect with Ndali. As they try to understand Ndali as a character not directly tied to her lover by fate and Chukwu’s providence, Chinonso—his life and fortunes—still hovers around her. Here, the need to know Ndali, as a woman or as another important character, without being defined by the life of Chinonso is a task the writer did not busy himself with.

Obioma’s latest work has the makings of a classic; in the sense that Italo Calvino describes, Obioma has written ‘a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.’ That said, An Orchestra of Minorities does not only tell a tragic love story. It draws readers and critics to the understanding of a man through the metaphysics of existence and through race, socio-political background and economic power as the other factors that decide the fate of men. Steeped in a rich language that does not pander to the West and a narrative style that elevates the beauty of Igbo cosmology, Obioma’s conceptualization of man and fate is rooted in a tradition he has purposefully popularized in this novel. The modern-day reality of the world and the interrelations of its subparts—underdeveloped or developed—are excellently married with his extensive investigation of the metaphysics of Igbo cosmology explicated through the chi. Obioma’s experimentation in his latest effort is, indeed, worthy of attention

An Orchestra of Minorities
Chigozie Obioma.
Little, Brown and Company.
464 pages.