Long before the Igbos in southeastern Nigeria came in contact with Christianity through colonization, they had their own spiritual beliefs. An all-knowing deity known as Chukwu ruled over earthly and unearthly worlds that were inhabited by humans, animals and a multitude of spirits — including guardian spirits called chis.
Much like Chinua Achebe’s novels (think “Things Fall Apart”) that drew successfully upon these Igbo beliefs and culture, Chigozie Obioma’s second work of fiction, “An Orchestra of Minorities,” adopts a decidedly nonwestern worldview.
Its narrator is a chi, the appointed guardian spirit of the novel’s main character, Chinonso, a Nigerian poultry farmer whose father recently has died, leaving him very much alone in these contemporary times. (Chinonso’s mother appears to have died in childbirth; his sister wants nothing to do with him.)
As with Obioma’s debut novel, “The Fishermen,” which landed him on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize in 2015, the imaginary world engendered here is of a male-centric bent, its female characters too often cast in roles of misery. They are the mentally ill mothers, the prostitutes and the grown women still under the oppressive thumbs of their fathers.
This time, however, the narrator’s male subjects aren’t multiple; the reader is mostly in the head of Chinonso, whose life unfolds in tragedy — of Odyssean proportions — after he saves a suicidal woman, Ndali, from near certain death and then falls in love with her.
She returns his love, but they are not permitted to marry. Ndali’s father, a chief, and her brother frown upon Chinonso’s lack of an education, going as far as to embarrass him during a celebration. With the help of a childhood friend, Chinonso embarks on an ill-advised journey to Cyprus to study at a university, only to find himself further and further away from his goal of marrying Ndali.
Readers looking for light and unencumbered need not apply. There is a steady stream of angst and despair as the novel progresses; a kind of fatalism about the individual and society begins to permeate everything.
The orchestra in the novel’s title refers to the mournful cries of aggrieved fowls, the powerless. It is fitting. And the gracefully roving, ever faithful chi with its figures of speech (similes abound), its adages from the fathers of old, and its obsession with retribution — he seeks atonement for a deadly act that Chinonso commits at the end — will eventually test the patience of the most dedicated reader.
It has been more than 50 years since Achebe broke ground in literature by interrogating the Western framework and adhering to the Igbo proverb with which Obioma opens his own book: “If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be the heroes in the stories of the hunt.”
Yet it is still exciting to see this approach in fiction today, kind of unadulterated. And so Obioma’s novel remains interesting and important for precisely this reason. It may be reason enough.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based critic and fiction writer.
An Orchestra of Minorities
By: Chigozie Obioma.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 448 pages, $28.