AFRICA’S MOST AWARDED WRITER

 

 

In his new novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, Chigozi Obioma recounts the sorrows of a young Nigerian poultry farmer who returns to his native land after a term in the Mediterranean. Like all exiles, Chinoso feels that he has come home to a world that has moved on without him. Long brooding over the loss of his homeland has exaggerated its charm and sweetness. Like Homer’s homesick voyager Odysseus, Chinoso longs to recount the tribulations of his life in exile, but who will believe him? Strikingly, Obiama applies the epic darkness of Greek tragedy to a modern Nigerian morality.

The plot is fraught with drama. Driving home from market in Nigeria one day, the 26-year-old farmer saves a suicidal woman called Ndali from throwing herself over a highway bridge. He hurries to join the woman by the roadside and impulsively hurls two of his prized chickens down onto the rocks below for her to see. That is how gruesome the fall will be! Astonished, Ndali decides against self-murder, and walks away gratefully into the night. Chinoso is left “uncertain about what he had done, only knowing that he had done something out of the ordinary.” Who is the mystery woman? Chinoso tracks her down and falls in love with her, but the auguries are not good.

 

 

Ndali, a trainee pharmacist, is ill-suited to the village boy Chinoso with his “agric fowl” business. Her father, an evangelist preacher and local bigwig, fears that the family’s good name will be tainted by association with this rough, palm wine-drinking oik. Ndalis is drawn to Chinoso’s tenderness, though, and Chinoso wins her heart. Under cover of dark she slips out to see her saviour and, amid a squawking from the hennery, has sex with him. The social shame is too much. Ndali’s older brother beats Chinoso almost to a pulp. Chinoso chooses not to retaliate: how could he hit the brother of the woman he loves so much?

Chinonso wants to marry Ndali, but his lack of education is a hindrance. With the help of a childhood friend, he sells his house, compound and poultry, and embarks on an ill-advised attempt to enroll at a university in far-distant Cyprus. Separated from his family and friends, he arrives on the Mediterranean island to find that he has fallen foul of a migration scam: the university is bogus. Driven to wander across Cyprus in search of work, he finds himself falsely accused of rape and murder, and is sentenced to jail. On his return to Nigeria a broken man he discovers that Ndali has moved on without him; but it is too late to reclaim their love. The bad Igbo spirits have taken up residence in Chinoso’s soul – he is a dead man walking.

 

 

Obioma has been here before. His debut novel, The Fishermen, likewise blended Igbo folklore with elements of the Odyssey. (It was short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.) His new fiction is narrated by a Tiresesias-like Igbo spirit called a chi (“Guardian spirits of mankind, all you who stand in the court of Bechukwu to testify, tell!”), and is determinedly non-western in its atmosphere and fatalism. The rather arch title – An Orchestra of Minorities – hints at creative writing programmes (Obioma is in fact a Nebraska university professor of creative writing). Like the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe before him, Obioma fashions an allegory of post-independence Nigeria and the cruelties of the contemporary world. The prose is pretty over-ripe at times (“even the hems of the garments of his brightest days were fringed with threads of sorrowful darkness”), but no matter. West Africa, with its pantheon of animist divinities and juju lore, is unforgettably evoked. You can almost smell the hot strong breath of the land in this brave gallimaufry of Greek myth and pre-colonial Igbo cosmology. If the writing drags a little towards the end, there is no mistaking its majesty.