Speaking about his first novel, The Fishermen, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, Chigozie Obioma said that he was interested in the forces that can destroy a family. Centring on four brothers who fish in a polluted river near their home in Nigeria, the novel tracks the breakdown of their relationship, sparked by a ‘madman’, Abulu, and a murderous prophecy he gives them. While Abulu is the novel’s putative saboteur, Obioma remarked that, crucially, the destruction of this band of brothers ‘is helped from within’. What is it, Obioma asked, ‘that can turn that love to hate’?
This is a question that animates Obioma’s second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities. It tells the story of Chinonso, a modest poultry farmer living in Umuahia, Nigeria, who is driving home one evening when he spots a car parked at the side of a bridge. As he slows to investigate, he sees a woman leaning over the edge, about to jump into the murky waters of the Amatu River. In a desperate attempt to stop her, he throws two of his newly bought chickens, including a prized white rooster, to their death below in order to show her ‘what will happen if somebody fall inside there’. She doesn’t jump. Months later, Chinonso comes across the woman again, who introduces herself as Ndali. They arrange to meet for dinner and soon begin an intense love affair that will ultimately ruin Chinonso.
The story is narrated from the point of view of Chinonso’s chi, which, in Igbo cosmology, is the spirit being that inhabits a human, or ‘host’. The narration takes the form of a direct testimony made by Chinonso’s chi to Chukwu, the supreme deity in the Igbo religion. The prose becomes lavish, even Miltonic, when the chi steps out of Chinonso’s body into the spirit world, flying ‘through a long stretch of the flaming night, past white mountains of the furthest realms of Benmuo, on which black-winged spirits stood, speaking in sepulchral voices’. Perspectives in this novel change in the flap of a wing, darting between the earthly and the supernatural realms, between grand, atemporal ideas and tiny local details, in fluent prose that marries Igbo, pidgin and English (‘the language of the White Man’).
Yet some of the most startling passages come when Obioma brings things quite literally down to earth. There is gentle humour and tenderness in the way Chinonso interacts with nature: he lives off a small plot of land at the front of his house, ‘harvesting tomatoes, okro and peppers. The corn his father had planted he let wilt and die, and he allowed a collection of insects to foment the resultant decay as long as they did not also trample on the other crops.’ During an early sexual encounter with a woman who has come to his house selling groundnuts, the narrator pauses the almost transcendental description to note that Chinonso’s table is edged with ‘dried chicken shit’. In these early sections of the novel Chinonso’s birds are everything to him. He cares for them, Ndali observes, ‘the way Jesus cares for his sheep with so much love’. When he leaves Nigeria for Cyprus and sells his flock, we get the creeping sense that he has abandoned not just his livelihood but his whole existence as well.
So what is it that brings about Chinonso’s fate and turns love to hate? Obioma has said that his work is inspired by European and African traditions; this book has both the singular inevitability of classical tragedy and the pellucid sense of injustice found in Chinua Achebe’s fiction. For a novel so interested in justice, its moral compass is gratifyingly complex, exploring but ultimately resisting a simple Christian narrative of redemption and forgiveness, instead recognising that the human propensity for resentment can be overwhelming. Chinonso is shunned by Ndali’s wealthy family, manipulated by an old friend and subjected to gross racism at the hands of the European justice system. Yet the question of whether he is the victim of human cruelty, the architect of his own demise or beholden to preordained destiny hangs over the novel, tantalisingly unresolved.