An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma is a gripping love story with tragic consequences.
Chinonso Solomon Olisa is a humble chicken farmer with a gentle spirit and compassionate heart. He leads a quiet, uneventful life, nurturing his chickens and goslings with tenderness and empathy. Through a chance encounter, he meets Ndali, the daughter of an affluent chief. They fall passionately in love. Their relationship is met with vehement opposition from her family. Humiliated by their rejection, Chinonso decides to seek a university degree in Cyprus to earn her family’s approval. Slowly but surely, his life begins to unravel. His decision, taken with the best of intentions, relentlessly catapults him from one tragic event to another until the novel’s inexorably catastrophic conclusion.
Through no fault of his own, Chinonso suffers degradation, humiliation, imprisonment, and rape until his release from a Cyprus jail. He goes back to Nigeria. But he is now a broken man, one who is beyond repair. His attempts to reclaim his property and the love of his life are repeatedly dashed. He cannot relinquish the past or reconcile himself with his losses. With his frustration and anger building, he sets out to avenge himself, perpetrating a crime which has tragic consequences.
The narrative unfolds in the voice of Chinonso’s chi—his guardian spirit. The tone of impending disaster is foreshadowed at the outset and recurs throughout the novel. It opens with the chi pleading for forgiveness for his host’s actions before a court of the Igbo god, one referred to in many different names.
Each chapter begins with the chi’s supplication to the god, pleading his host’s case. Threaded throughout the narrative are references to the beliefs and traditions of the complex system of Igbo cosmology. The chi shares the wisdom he has acquired from inhabiting the bodies of previous hosts going back many generations. He bemoans the erosion of the traditional beliefs of the fathers and the willingness of Nigerians to abandon those beliefs by adopting the beliefs of the White man. Although he tries to intervene in the form of Chinonso’s conscience and occasionally leaves his host’s body for the ethereal world of spirits to seek help for his host’s predicament, his ability to effect change as a guardian spirit is limited. He watches helplessly as Chinonso plummets into a vortex not of his making.
On the one hand, this is a riveting story of a love gone terribly wrong. On the other hand, the novel can also be read as a metaphor for a people who, through no fault of their own, experience betrayal, injustice, humiliation, rape, beatings, silencing, loss of dignity, and loss of personal property. No matter which way they turn, circumstances conspire against them. They struggle to retain their original identity, but their suffering has been too great and transformative. They become obsessive, embittered humans with a thirst for vengeance, capable of perpetrating acts of violence on blameless victims.
Obioma has written a complex, compelling novel, epic in scope, and threaded with elements of magical realism. He has taken a traditional love story of a poor boy and rich girl; situated it in a Nigerian village; immersed the reader in Igbo culture and cosmology alongside western culture; mesmerized with his lyrical prose; skillfully built up the tension; and grabbed us by the hand and heart to lead us to the inevitable, catastrophic conclusion. The title of the book refers to the chickens’ song of mourning when one of their flock is forcibly taken. Just like the chickens wailing in sorrow, just like Chinonso’s chi, we watch helplessly on the side lines and lend our voices to the orchestra of minorities mourning their loss.
A thought-provoking, challenging read. Highly recommended.