Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities combines Igbo folklore with Greek tragedy

Obioma’s second novel is a shaggy dog story about a hapless young poultry farmer.

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Just over three years ago, shortly after the Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma had published his debut novel, The Fishermen, he wrote an essay entitled “The Audacity of Prose”. In it, he railed against the “blind adoption” of “minimalism” in contemporary fiction. Novelists should not aspire to mere reportage, he argued; they should aim for an artistic clarity “that is the equivalence of special effects in film”. He applauded authors as various as Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie and especially Arundhati Roy, who “float enthusiastically on blasted chariots of prose, and whose literary horses are high on poetic steroids”.

At the time, Obioma was 29. The Fishermen, a mythic and bloody tale of three brothers in 1990s Nigeria, went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and Obioma was described by one critic as “the heir to Chinua Achebe”.

Obioma’s second novel, however, does little for his argument in favour of more-is-more prose. An Orchestra of Minorities, set in modern Nigeria, is a shaggy dog story about a hapless young poultry farmer, which combines Igbo folklore with The Odyssey and Greek tragedy. (Its publisher is calling it “epic” – but this may have more to do with the large number of pages than anything else.) The story is narrated by the “chi” of Chinonso Solomon Olisa – that’s the guardian spirit who watches over humans in Igbo cosmology and helps them negotiate their destiny. The chi, acting rather like a Greek chorus, comes to testify before the god of creation on Chinonso’s behalf, since he has possibly killed a woman.

We hear how Chinonso spends his life tending to his beloved chickens and cleaning up their excrement (of which there’s a lot), until one day he intervenes in a suicide attempt by Ndali, a bright young woman studying pharmacology. Ndali falls for Chinonso, but he must improve his social standing for her wealthy parents to approve the match. When a school friend reappears, promising Chinonso a university education in Cyprus (where Obioma studied), the lowly farmer falls for the scam. After a series of misfortunes, Chinonso ends up in a Cypriot jail obsessing about revenge and retribution.

Tell, O, world, tell! Tell them this; in the end, there will be reckoning. They must recite it like an anthem. They must tell it from the tops of trees, on the tops of the mountains, on the pinnacle of the hills, along the river shores, at the marketplaces, in the town squares.  They must say it again and again: in the end, it does not matter how long it takes. There. Will. Be. Reckoning.

The premise, rooted as it is in the reality of education swindles, is good, as is the poignant scene in which Chinonso is forced to serve as a parking attendant at Ndali’s father’s party. Some of Obioma’s images are apt too: anticipation is described as “a drop of vicious blood in the vein of time”; Chinonso is “as helpless as a cockerel in the eye grip of the hawk”.

Despite its loquacious and digressive prose, Obioma’s first novel had a potent narrative and geographical focus. Yet here the action is impeded by overwrought descriptions, fatuous dialogue and unremarkable flashbacks. There’s something neurotic about Obioma’s writing, as if he wants to convey every passing thought he’s ever had, so that we can see exactly what he sees, but this leaves no scope for the reader’s imagination. It doesn’t help that Obioma tells us all about the habits of man before making his characters conform to them. There’s a lot of cringeworthy writing too. Here’s one example: “It struck him that the unguarded burst of joy had been the aetiology of his undoing.” And another: “He would not be deterred by the inflorescence of blood or its affluent spattering all across the room.” 

Indeed, for a story written in such constipated prose, there’s a constant gush of spit, shit, semen, and air emitted from the vagina – rarely has so much effluvia emanated from one novel. It’s writing that squanders itself in a juvenile mix of crudity and mawkishness.

A more serious failing is Obioma’s treatment of women. They are present either to be worshipped or pilloried for the protagonist’s undoing, their bodies ejaculated into or tortured to facilitate his journey. That Chinonso blames them for his predicament rather than the man responsible (who is rehabilitated as a born-again Christian) is a gross injustice that the author fails to examine. For 500 pages, Chinonso is the humble hero of a sentimental yarn. At the end, however, we discover that his dealings with Ndali have been malign rather than innocent.

At best, it’s a clumsy handling of a plot twist; at worst, it’s misogyny of the cruellest kind. In a novel that does little to explore the problems of modern Nigeria, there’s a last-minute suggestion that this post-colonial country is so embroiled in conflict, it’s hardly surprising that men unleash their ugliness on women. Men who “live blindfolded, gagged, terrified” are deformed by the spiritual politics of their nation. It’s a dangerous idea, and it goes unchallenged.

When Chinonso receives an apology from the accusers who landed him in jail, Obioma writes: “Words had lost their usefulness and had evolved into something else, something without form, amorphous, worthless. In their place, contempt had rooted and blossomed.” Unfortunately this is much closer to home than he realises. 

An Orchestra of Minorities
Chigozie Obioma
Little, Brown, 528pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 25 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?