Each of the novels on this year’s Booker shortlist deals with outsiders: Shafak’s sex workers, Rushdie’s unemployed immigrant; Ellman’s Ohioan housewife is the closest to middle-class comfort the shortlist managers, but the intense anxiety that suffuses those pages robs the character of any of the assured confidence we might ordinarily associate with the insider. In the main, these novels seek to align their reader with their marginalised characters: as I discussed with Abigail Nussbaum in the comments to my review of Girl, Woman, Other, identification may indeed be at least one of these novels primary aim. In An Orchestra of Minorities, however, Chigozie Obioma isn’t quite playing that game: his oppressed character is so damaged by his experiences that the reader risks entirely losing sympathy.
Indeed, this tug of war gives the novel its structure: the narrator is not the protagonist but his chi, a sort of guardian spirit in the Igbo cosmology who pleads on its host’s behalf to its presiding demiurges. The human host, Chinonso, “has committed this great crime in error, unknowingly” the chi insists [p. 4], and in order to save its host from retribution the spirit proposes to impart the story of his life up to the date of the infraction. Like the best advocates, it couches its defence in precedent, in the received wisdom of existing authorities. In this case, the chi calls on a seemingly endless store of Igbo aphorisms. Most chapters begin with one of these, and indeed are peppered with gnomic pronouncements throughout, of which the following is a decent sample: “the old fathers say that a mouse cannot run into an empty mousetrap in broad daylight unless it has been drawn to the trap by something it could not refuse” [p. 130]. The old fathers, it turns out, are verbose.
The chi’s dilatory style, which is a unique and original a voice perhaps because of its excesses, ensures that we do not reach the details of Chinonso’s crime until the novel’s final chapter. Instead, we learn much about his early life as a chicken farmer – difficult, due to the filthy conditions of his work, but also not entirely without promise, since the farm is owned by his family. When he comes across a woman, Ndali, who is about to drown herself in a river, Chinonso persuades her instead to continue to life – her betrothed has married another after only a short time living in Britain, but he encourages her to see that this is not worth her own life. They fall in love; but Ndali’s family are rich – and Chinonso is a chicken father without an education. Ndali’s parents do not approve, and oppose the marriage.
Here the novel places culture front and centre: the Igbo traditions and language of Chinonso, and the Western, Christian, English-speaking culture of Ndali’s family. This postcolonial snobbery persists throughout. It darkens even the final pages of the novel, when the Christianity of Ndali’s milieu is seen to be both hollow and yet strangely suffused with the forgiveness of which Chinonso is incapable: when, in a bid to win the favour of Ndali’s father, he pays a friend up-front to send him to university in Cyprus (using the proceeds of his farm’s sale), he soon finds himself penniless and unregistered on the Greek island that once shipwrecked Odysseus. He proceeds to repeat Odysseus’s period of exile from Penelope (“he will not know that it happened long ago, and had merely been patiently waiting for him to notice” [p. 512]).
The novel does not, then, eschew the culture of the coloniser as Akwaeke Emezi chose to do in her recent Freshwater (a novel that also rendered Igbo cosmology in the contemporary, material world); rather, An Orchestra of Minorities seeks to hold them in tension. This isn’t entirely successful, and asks difficult questions. The Greek killed Penelope’s suitors, but he didn’t plot this retribution while away – and he didn’t punish his wife (though for some reason he did hang her handmaidens). Does Chinonso’s more wrathful, more premeditated, response to his travails say something about the Igbo tradition when contrasted with the relative stoicism and impersonal character of Odysseus’s? Does the manner in which the man who connected Chinonso with the fraudulent university enrolment goes on to embrace Christianity and, on his return, Chinonso himself point to the hypocrisy of the religion of the coloniser … or to the relative rigidity of the native theology? These often implicit questions are usually left unanswered.
Certainly the novel undermines the apparent wisdom of its chi by depicting the cluelessness and increasing malice of Chinonso. When it declares that “the great fathers in their discreet wisdom say that seeds sown in secret always yield the most vibrant fruit” [p. 172], it is practising wilful blindness: the silences in Chinonso’s life ruin him; they bear bitter – rotten – fruit indeed. Even the apparent omniscience of its narration (“his voice is my voice” [p. 4]) is explicitly rejected: “I have spoken many times this night about this peculiar lack in man and his chi,” it admits, “that they are unable to know that which they do not see or hear” [p. 510]. Obioma is not entirely patient with the pretensions of his spirits – or perhaps with any. For him, human experience is darker and dingier than all that.
Chinonso, for example, is hard to like – particularly in his objectification of Ndali. Early on, he focuses primarily on her “ponderous breasts” [p. 37], and he never really moves beyond them. When finally reunited with her after many years, he notices first that she is “weightier than the slender woman whose image he carried in his head all these years” [p. 449]. Chinonso’s chi is challenged, at the close of the novel, by Ndali’s: “I warned you to desist long ago but he kept coming after her, chasing her, until he disrupted her life” [p. 509]. Chinonso, for whom “loneliness is the violent dog that barks interminably” [p. 19], and who suffers from a “poverty of anticipation and the emptiness of hope for the future” [p. 223], is a sort of incel: entitled and affronted, someone for whom a woman is less an individual and more a set of imagined virtues, a reflection of their own needs (for these are all that matter). In pleading for him, the chi makes a serious error of identification.
Yes, Chinonso is the victim of racism in Cyprus – in one painful scene he is mistaken for Ronaldinho and forced to sign footballs. In others he is mocked for not being able to speak Turkish, or refused help because of his country of origin. And yes, he is the victim of a cruel trick, a form of human trafficking that profits from the forlorn hopes of the disadvantaged. But when he is rejected by a woman we are told he “quaked in his seat as a possessive form of violence perched on his mind” [p. 484]; it is hard, despite all the depredations to which he falls victim, to feel sympathy for him. When the chi argues that “my host would have done things differently if he had more capabilities” [p. 457], it feels like special pleading – and rings hollow.
Is this the author’s intent? I’m not sure: his debut novel, The Fishermen, spooled out a similarly grisly plot and managed to maintain the reader’s sympathy for those caught up in it; one of the novel’s three epigram’s is another Igbo proverb that maintains “if the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be heroes”; and in an Author’s Note he suggests that he hopes the novel can “serve as a sufficient reference book” for anyone interested in “Afro-religions” [p. 513]. So there is a sense that, perhaps, An Orchestra of Minorities isn’t quite aiming for the ambivalence that ultimately it inspires. The novel takes its title from a saying of Chinonso’s father: that the English would translate the Igbo for “little things” – chickens – as minorities. “He was always saying the chickens know that is all they can do: crying and making the sound ukuuukuu!” [p. 98]
If Obioma thinks his novel is a story of the effects that prejudice and marginalisation can have on a man, then he is only half-right: but the man comes to that suffering already half-broken, and this is not his vision of the Igbo culture, which is rendered here in full and deep detail (there are even diagrams). Perhaps the girth of the novel, and the sometimes glutinous quality of its prose, is evidence that it got away from Obioma in this way; or perhaps the ambivalence is baked in but quietly, a less trumpeted part of the project. Either way, if not wholly successful or balanced, the novel is meaty and full of the sort of ingenuity and creative clash that prizes like the Booker often reward. It may, then, have a shot at this year’s gong – and for Obioma it is already his second such opportunity, an achievement in itself. But I wonder if they, too, will be given pause not by the novel per se … but by Chinonso.