Confronting the Stories We Tell Ourselves

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

Chinonso Solomon Olisa does not narrate his own story in an Orchestra of Minorities, Chigozie Obioma’s Odyssean second novel. The trials, tribulations, and misfortunes of the impoverished poultry farmer seep through the screen of his chi, the guardian spirit of Nigerian Igbo cosmology.   “In the court of Bechukwu, in Eluigwe, the land of eternal, luminous light,” the chi is driven to a desperate and potentially tragic act of spiritual intervention on Chinonso’s behalf,” because “he has committed [a] great crime in error, unknowingly.” The series of events that led to this extraordinary breach of conduct starts with Chinonso’s trip seven years before to buy chickens at the local market, including a beautiful and expensive white rooster that reminds him of the gosling he treasured – and betrayed – in his youth. On his drive back, his musings on death turn frighteningly real as his vision of a drowned woman and her child, victims of a river enraged by unprecedented recent floods, turns into the reality of another woman, leaning over the bridge railing and about to jump. This woman, Ndali, beseeches him to leave her, but the pain of compassion in his heart is so great that he retrieves his white rooster from the van and throws it to the current, a kind of sacrificial atonement whose significance Ndali cannot register at this moment. 

A few months later, Chinonso and Ndali – a wealthy, educated, and aspiring pharmacist-in-training still spinning from a broken engagement that ended with her ex-fiancee absconding to London – embark on a romance charged with both physical urgency and the potentially violent force of passionate darkness. When Chinonso realizes that his current circumstances prevent him from ever achieving worthiness in the eyes of Ndali’s family, he sets out on a journey to educate himself and attain the type of status abroad that will win him favour. A former classmate, Jamike, promises to help him attend university in Cyprus, which he mistakes as a sure passageway to the prestige of European connections. His arrival in Cyprus – a region suspended in democratic limbo with menial prospects, hostile job competition, rampant racism, and a desertified climate – signals his descent into a first circle of hell. He traded the solid ground of his farm, however marginal it was, for the empty promises of a system that preys on the hopes of those flocks of migrants, descending like birds, and builds its wealth on their destitution.

Chigozie Obioma’s inspiration for the novel came from his experiences as a mentor for new arrivals at the University of Cyprus, and in particular his brief relationship, starting in September of 2009, with a man called Jay. In a January 2016 essay on the topic for The Guardian, Obioma wrote that Jay had a light in his eyes “of a man who had danced through life’s theater of fire, and now bore the scars of his personal incineration like a trophy.” Floundering after a surprise deportation back to Nigeria from Germany, Jay had been an easy target for the middlemen peddling credentials in Cyprus, “because the prospect of a place where he could get back on his feet revived a once-strangled hope.” Obioma’s reflections on Jay’s fate – the police discover his body under an eight-story building after a fall from an elevator shaft in the dark – invoke his memories of his battles against the pigeons that plagued his Cyprean apartment with their waste. Obioma used a bird trap, a gluey combination of lime seeds and tree bark, to lure this most innocent of birds into voluntary, fatal imprisonment. With haunting similarity, the powerful ambitions of young men and women like Jay, rather than launching them to Homeric triumph, often ensnare them.     

In the novel, Chinonso, ensnared after false murder accusations, languishes for years in a Cyprean jail. His geographic and temporal dislocation, coupled with his disillusionment at the twisting of his apparent destiny by forces of oppression so diffuse and shadowed as to almost be beyond comprehension, means that every pleasant memory rots into a toxic reminder of how far he has fallen: “Even if they had been gathered in his mind in their multitudes, they would merely accumulate in abysmal futility, like a stack of gold in the mouth of a dead man.” His single life serves as a lens through which Obioma probes the complexities of preordination and free will in Igbo religious tradition, traditions often neglected, if not downright erased, after the arrival of the British and the importation of “Jisos Kraist” to Nigeria. Chinonso’s apparent agency as a character is always constrained by the psychic negotiations of his chi before the divine authority of the primary deities, Chukwu, the creator of the universe, and Ala, the mother of the earth. 

Despite several hundred lifetimes of reincarnation and soul-shepherding, the chi himself still marvels at the mysteries of human motivation. Addressing his fellows, the chi remarks, “Have we contemplated the physiognomy of love – how some relationships are stillborn, some are retarded and do not grow, and some fledge into adults and last through the lifetime of the lovers?” The fledgling also can be hampered and struck down and turn against its own former mate, as happens with Chinonso. His eventual return to Nigeria finds Ndali established as a pharmacist, married, with her own practice and all the jewelled hallmarks of success that life had probably already marked out for her. In contrast, Chinoso has become deformed, battered by the weight of the physical and mental traumas deepened by the length of time he spent in unbearable suspense about the fidelity of his beloved. Rationally, he understands that Ndali should not have been expected to wait for a man safely assumed dead, but tidal wave of his self-righteous fury – distilled by seclusion in the flask of his poisoned mind – drives him to commit the ultimate act of revenge. 

The Orchestra of Minorities makes us confront – in the most vivid and evocative way possible – how our intentions and actions on a minute scale – the sale of a farm, the spark of love, the striking of a match – fold into the wider scope of the world: the legacies of colonialism, mistreatment of migrants, economic inequality, environmental devastation, and civil war. For Chinonso, what line could we trace back to the final source of injustice? How responsible are we for the lives of our ancestors and the blood they might have shed on the oppressed, whose names we do not know because they were actively scrubbed from the story we tell ourselves of the triumph of the Christian God? Jisos Kraist, whatever his guise, mourns with those who mourn and fights for their redemption, including the orchestras of minorities upon minorities whose stories precede our names for him.  

  • Jennie has a degree in animal biology, loves learning unfamiliar words, and is extremely fond of God’s gift of chocolate. She lives in Zeeland, MI.

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