Following up on the impressive debut novel The Fisherman (published in 2015), Chigozie Obioma’s follow up work An Orchestra of Minorities has once again created a buzz. Set in rural Nigeria, the novel follows the life of Chinonso, a young poultry farmer, who struggles with the sudden loss of his father, having already lost his mother during his teenage years. His only sister had long eloped with an unsuitable man. Depressed and feeling ever so isolated, he has a chance encounter with a woman attempting suicide as he is returning home one evening. That event is the crux around which the course of Chinonso’s life will now flow.
For outward appearances, it was Chinonso who saved the young woman’s life. But it would prove to be the case that the act of saving a stranger’s life brings Chinonso’s own struggles into perspective. The mythic ‘Chi’ is an important non-human character in the narrative. Chi is the guardian angel and guiding spirit to the newly awakened Chinonso. One could draw parallels with the Chinese Taoist concept of the Qi (pronounced ‘Chi’) which is loosely translated as ‘vital force’ or ‘life energy’. The comparison is apt, for ‘Chi’ brings in the necessary vitality and spark that was conspicuously missing in the protagonist’s life for long. The genie-like conception of the Chi is a useful literary device, for its super-human characteristics allow imaginative freedoms that a strict adherence to reality would not afford.
Chinonso, during his wilderness years, had fallen into untoward behaviors. On one occasion he inadvertently ends up killing a person. Chi guides him through the process of repentance and pleads on behalf of his host to the sacred ancestors, who are equal to Gods in the belief system of rural Nigeria.
There are places in the novel when the real and the metaphorical intermingle. This literary device works very well under the skillful hands of Obioma. The case for Chinonso’s salvation for his act of murder is thus addressed as much to the court of law as it is to the deceased ancestors. In this fashion the author tries to reconcile ancient Nigerian beliefs with contemporary justice delivery systems.
The omniscient Chi is a strong narrative voice in the book, as he pours forth his wisdom in the form of advice to Chinonso. Obioma distinguishes the voice of Chi through its distinct erudition. Despite Chi’s constant guidance, the protagonist is easily susceptible to human frailties, as witnessed in his ill-conceived romantic designs towards Ndali – the young woman he had previously saved from suicide. The college going Ndali, who comes from a privileged family, has a charm too powerful for Chinonso to resist. In the end, in a rather predictable literary trope, she proves to be his undoing. In his eagerness to match her economic and social status, Chinonso takes a few imprudent decisions that push him toward pecuniary and ruin.
Obioma’s second novel is much more self-assured than his earlier work. Here, he seems unburdened from following a strictly formal style and this has unleashed a burst of creative expression not frequently witnessed in Nigerian literature. Epic in scope and inventive in wordcraft and ideation, An Orchestra of Minorities is ultimately, despite its tragic ending, a celebration of life. It once again proves the power of the written word to salvage imperfections in human nature and the undesirable consequences human agency leads to. It is as much a psychological study as it is a snapshot of a country in transition, as amply illustrated by the stronghold of ancient belief systems on a country keen on economic advancement.