Boyd Tonkin

A tragic fall from grace

Igbo mythology and cosmology suffuse this powerful, if rambling, novel as it swings between earthly and spiritual planes

A tragic fall from grace
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An Orchestra of Minorities

Chigozie Obioma

Little, Brown, pp. 443, £

Nurture hatred in your heart and you will keep ‘an unfed tiger in a house full of children’. A man who passes on a plausible lie ‘may be offering a rattlesnake in a calabash of food’. Someone who lugs grievances around carries ‘a full pitcher of resentment from which, every step or so on its rough journey through the worn path of life, a drop or two spilled’. This second book from the young Nigerian author whose debut, The Fishermen, reached the Man Booker shortlist does not quite escape that difficult second novel syndrome. It’s overlong, raggedly structured and freighted with rambling digressions. Yet almost every page trumpets the gifts of a writer who can make his language soar, wheel and pounce like that pitiless avian deity the hawk, ‘borne on violent wings and merciless talons’.

As in The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma’s provincial tale of passion and ambition serves as a sort of microcosm that distils a bigger narrative about Nigeria, and indeed Africa, today. Chinonso, our too innocent chicken-farmer hero, saves a wealthy chief’s daughter, Ndali, from suicide. They fall in love, and he determines to better himself. After selling his cherished property and poultry, he enrols at a dodgy college in Northern Cyprus. In this parched dystopia on the edge of Europe, he finds himself fleeced, betrayed and ultimately jailed on a false charge of rape. After ‘this great shattering of a man’s soul’, Chinonso returns like Odysseus (that ‘white man of ancient times’) to his home. There, he vainly seeks to regain the love of Ndali, now a prosperous — and married —pharmacist.

No human narrator tells his story. We hear it through the poetic, sententious and buttonholing voice of Chinonso’s ‘chi’, or guardian spirit: one of those supernatural shadows which ‘speak the language of the living’. Igbo mythology and cosmology suffuse the novel as it swings between earthly and spiritual planes. The setting can leap in a trice from a chicken coop or roadside bar to the heavenly abodes of the ancestors. Sometimes Obioma’s cast of discarnate beings, with their spats and grudges that much resemble the Olympian gods’, outstay their welcome. Sometimes, he can summon the ‘shimmering radiance’ of their immaterial realm with all the epic heft of an Igbo Paradise Lost.

Chinonso’s disenchanted fate when he abandons the traditional ‘civilisation of the fathers’ traces a course familiar in Nigerian — and other African — fiction since the 1950s. Like Chinua Achebe, Obioma frames his hero’s encounter with rootless modernity as a tragic fall from grace. As with Amos Tutuola or Ben Okri, the worlds of bodies and of spirits fruitfully entwine. When, in Cyprus, Chinonso tumbles into a hell of injustice and joins the persecuted ‘orchestra of minorities’, he extends a line of damaged exiles whose ‘season of migration to the north’ (the title of Tayeb Salih’s classic Sudanese novel) will end in trauma and regret. To this lineage Obioma brings his untiring flair for metaphor and parable, proverb and myth. Pithy images cut through the sprawl and meander. ‘Your ears have been patient,’ our spirit narrator tells his divine listeners. Obioma’s readers will need patient ears as well. He rewards them, though, with the rejuvenating music of his prose.