Chigozie Obioma’s 2015 debut The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. His follow-up is the tale of Chinonso, a young poultry farmer in present-day Nigeria. Chinonso has never recovered from the childhood loss of his mother, and is depressed about the recent death of his father; at 24 he is living alone in the family home, his sister having run off years ago to a forbidden marriage. He half-heartedly drags his way through the days until one evening, returning home after buying chickens, he approaches a bridge spanning a dangerously swollen river. There he sees a woman about to jump: he tries to reason with her but she is determined. In a desperate bid to stop her, Chinonso hurls two of his new birds down into the water to demonstrate the terrible reality of drowning.
The young woman comes to her senses and Chinonso drives home; it seems nothing more than a passing encounter. But the pair will meet again months later, with dramatic consequences. Watching over the scene that night was the narrator, Chinonso’s all-seeing guardian or chi, who recalls that his charge or ‘host’ was aware of “having done something out of the ordinary”. “And I, his chi, flashed the thought in his mind that he’d done enough, and that it was best he left.”
Chi does his best to encourage his human host to think positive thoughts. He also has a bigger task: to make a plea to the ancestors on behalf of Chinonso who, after a personal odyssey spanning seven years, unwittingly commits murder, and faces damnation.
An Orchestra of Minorities is presented in flashback, in the form of a detailed court appeal delivered to a divine jury. Each chapter begins with Chi framing an eloquent intercession that draws on both logic and the old beliefs: “The great fathers say that to get to the top of a hill, one must begin from its foot. I have come to understand that the life of a man is a race from one end to the other. That which came before is a corollary to that which follows it.” Painstakingly, Chi, a brilliant storyteller who emerges as a combination of disappointed parent and bewildered anthropologist, not only outlines what happened, he relives it, all of it, in making his case to the God of Creation.
Throughout the novel Obioma makes inspired use of Igbo cosmology, which he defines in an author’s note as “a complex system of beliefs and traditions that once guided – and in part still guides – my people”. Chi has previously been the guardian of a great warrior, though one who came to a bad end in battle. During his 700 years moving from host to host, accompanying each of them from birth to death, he has witnessed a great deal; but none of it approaches the operatic self-destruction Chinonso embarks on in attempting to marry Ndali, the young woman he saves on the bridge. Initially it is her gratitude that causes their relationship to develop. It is a romance driven by chance, and several ironies such as a belated invitation to Ndali’s father’s birthday party, which serves to push the lovers closer together.
Privileged Ndali is studying pharmacy. In order to pursue the university degree expected by her father, Chinonso sells his home and compound and sets off for Cyprus, a divided country with its own problems. Once there he stumbles into misfortune; by the time he gets back to Nigeria, he has become twisted beyond salvation.
Obioma’s frenetically assured second novel is a spectacular artistic leap forwards. Warm, earnest and often beautiful, The Fishermen was impressive, although its narrative voice was at times too formal to be fully convincing. There is nothing tentative about this new book, a linguistically flamboyant, fast-moving, fatalistic saga of one man’s personal disaster. Regardless of the publisher’s claim, An Orchestra of Minorities is not a reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey – even if Chi does invoke the epic in a vain bid to make Chinonso feel better about his situation: “I always told him to have faith like the white man of ancient times, Odysseus, in the tale he loved as a kid.” Chinonso, whose temper becomes increasingly violent, is no Odysseus: he has more in common with Othello or Hardy’s Jude, or Alfred Döblin’s Franz Biberkopf in Berlin Alexanderplatz.
Rich in folklore and the daily colour of ordinary life juxtaposed with the spirit world resonating all around it, Obioma’s morality tale triumphs through the character of the kindly Chi, hovering over the action as if wringing his hands. It is Chi who observes the humans as they fool themselves and each other: seeking truths and telling lies, aspiring and failing. His wisdom is expressed in the many philosophical asides: “For a mind of a man is a field in a wild forest on which something, no matter, how small, must graze.” While he is explaining away Chinonso’s tendency to brood on the wrongs he has suffered, fate insists on intervening in ways Chi can’t alter: betrayal and revenge are major themes in a tale of biblical retribution.
Few contemporary novels achieve the seductive panache of Obioma’s heightened language, with its mixture of English, Igbo and colourful African-English phrases, and the startling clarity of the dialogue. The story is extreme; yet its theme is a bid for mercy for that most fragile of creatures – a human.
This was Eileen Battersby final review for the Guardian, written shortly before her death in December 2018.