Rooted in Nigerian Igbo cosmology, Chigozie Obioma’s second novel is a rare treasure: a book that deepens the mystery of the human experience.
Chigozie Obioma’s second novel — it follows Man Booker Prize finalist “The Fishermen” — is a rare treasure: a book that deepens the mystery of the human experience. Rooted in Nigerian Igbo cosmology, this story is told by the guardian spirit, or chi, of its “host,” a young man named Chinonso Solomon Olisa; in the narration, the chi is addressing the supreme creator in defense of his host’s dire actions on Earth, while recounting his life story.
Chinonso is a modest chicken farmer in southeastern Nigeria. His life path diverges one day when he sees a young woman, Ndali, about to leap off a bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. He convinces her not to. Their paths cross again — each of them is on the lookout for the other — and eventually they fall in love.
For reasons of class and culture, the match is ill-fated. Ndali is college-educated and studying to become a pharmacist; Chinonso earns a meager living. When he meets her wealthy family, the result is predictably disastrous; several humiliating encounters shake him to the core.
Though easily cowed and undone, Chinonso becomes determined to prove his worthiness. He decides to go to Cyprus to attend college, and this is when his troubles begin, a torturous downward spiral that hurtles toward the story’s startling conclusion.
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Chinonso’s suffering feels mythic, and indeed his chi invokes Homer’s Odyssey several times as the protagonist faces trial after trial, each seemingly worse than the last.
The traditional Igbo spirit realm underlies all that transpires in the novel. In the opening pages, Obioma includes a set of complex explanatory charts, suggesting what could have been a more didactic treatment of religion, but the spiritual element is a binding force, adding richness and depth to the storyline.
The narration by the guardian spirit, who has lived for hundreds of years, allows the author to dispense life lessons in a pleasing and authoritative way. For example, one chapter begins this way: “The old fathers say that if a secret is kept too long, even the deaf will come to hear of it. It is true, also … if one seeks something one does not have, no matter how elusive that thing is, if his feet do not restrain him from chasing it, he will eventually have it. I have seen it many times.”
With the chi serving as a kind of defense attorney, Obioma can more completely fill in the details of Chinonso’s personality and upbringing — to make a case for his fundamental goodness.
And although he is influenced by his chi and other spirits, Chinonso is never manipulated or coerced by these forces; he is free to make his own decisions, however foolish or unwise they may be. In the meantime, Chinonso’s chi is well aware of the limits to his powers. He tells the creator: “You have sent me to live on earth with humans in many cycles of existence, and I have seen many things, and I’m wise in the ways of humanity. But yet I do not fully understand the human heart.”
This acknowledgment of life’s mystery — and a willingness to embrace it — makes “An Orchestra of Minorities” a transcendent read.
“An Orchestra of Minorities” by Chigozie Obioma, Little, Brown and Company, 464 pp., $27
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct title of Chigozie Obioma’s “The Fishermen,” and with the fact that it was a Man Booker Prize finalist, not winner.