Chigozie Obioma’s Homerian Epic

The Man Booker finalist’s second book explores the transcontinental sacrifices made for love. It’s also an acute narrative about the indignities of traveling as an outsider.

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Moments before setting the novel’s central journey into motion, the protagonist of An Orchestra of Minorities makes a simple declaration about the woman he loves. “I’m ready to do anything to marry her,” the beleaguered Nigerian poultry farmer Chinonso Solomon Olisa tells Jamike, an erstwhile childhood friend. It is an earnest mission statement, at once brave and straightforward. But the lovesick young man has no grasp of the terrors that await him on the path ahead.

The second novel from the Man Booker Prize finalist Chigozie Obioma, An Orchestra of Minorities is a wrenching study of the sacrifices made for love. The arc of the chicken farmer’s attachment to the pharmacist-in-training Ndali Obialor begins not with a first date, but with near-tragedy, when Chinonso prevents her from jumping off a bridge. Their chance meeting months later births a desperate romance troubled by Ndali’s well-educated family, who won’t accept the humble farmer as her future spouse. Chinonso is in despair until the visiting Jamike offers him a slippery pathway to acceptance: traveling to Cyprus to receive more schooling, then returning as a man of stature—the kind of man Ndali deserves to marry.

In rendering his protagonist’s journey to Cyprus, and the scene that greets the unknowing Chinonso when he arrives, Obioma recasts Homer’s Odyssey. For both tales’ heroes, “mere survival is the most amazing feat of all.” But where Odysseus thrashed “under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea,” Chinonso is betrayed by his fellow man. The experience never plunges him into the underworld, but in a letter to Ndali, he writes that he “went to hell” in Cyprus. Obioma conveys Chinonso’s trials with an eye toward the quotidian horrors that many African migrant farmers face in real life.

Though Chinonso is driven by love—the most human of pursuits—neither his classed countrymen nor most of the Europeans he encounters are willing to extend him compassion. Obioma emphasizes that many of these obstacles stem from Chinonso’s visible Africanness—Europeans mock the man’s hair, deny him work, and scoff at his inability to speak Turkish. In Cyprus, he is “a wayfarer in a foreign land”: maligned, mistreated, even jailed for a grievous crime he didn’t commit.

Obioma depicts the indignities the farmer faces with rich details, at times even appearing to revel in the contours of his protagonist’s suffering. Describing Chinonso at one point, he writes: “All the world becomes dead to a man like him in such a time as this, and therefore all the pleasant memories, all the images that would have brought him pleasure, mean nothing in this moment. 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.”

The novel exalts the mouth as a site of power, benevolent or otherwise. Obioma homes in on words unsaid, covenants broken, and kisses tendered. For the author, this attention isn’t new. His prior work was also preoccupied with the mouth as a locus of communion between spirits and flesh. Obioma’s debut, The Fishermen, told the story of four brothers whose lives are forever changed by a prophecy that one of them will kill the eldest among them: An eccentric homeless man, whom some of the town’s residents believe to be possessed by spirits, effectively speaks the galling betrayal into existence when he shouts it at the boys.

Though that novel bore the marks of a Greek tragedy, it unfolded entirely via the recollections of the youngest brother. An Orchestra of Minorities, by contrast, has no human narrator. If The Fishermen detailed the downfall of prideful men with earthly gravity, then Obioma’s latest meditates on the psychic turmoil of the downtrodden. It begins with a reflection from Chinonso’s chi, or guardian spirit, which narrates the story and refers to the farmer as his “host.” The being watches over Chinonso as his journey unfolds, and advocates to celestial judges on his behalf when the farmer transgresses.

Drawing from local spiritual traditions, Obioma sketches a topography of Igbo spirits through the chi’s incantations, which also serve to structure the novel. The author deftly weaves ancestral knowledge into the contemporary tale of Chinonso even as he gestures toward the country’s younger religious conventions. (He’s careful to attribute Christianity, and images of “Jisos Kraist,” to the white man.) An Orchestra brings to mind the more brazen boundary transgression of another recent novel, the Igbo and Tamil author Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, which explored the dissonance of multiple spiritual beings inhabiting one human body. Obioma, though, sticks with Chinonso’s chi and hews closely to classical conventions even when invoking the Igbo spirit. Both his tautology and his prose hint at a fascination with Aristotelian philosophy. Consider this reflection from Chinonso’s chi, recalling Ndali’s first visit to the young man’s farm:

Guardian spirits of mankind, have we thought about the powers that passion creates in a human being? Have we considered why a man could run through a field of fire to get to a woman he loves? … 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?

These questions, unanswered and perhaps also unanswerable, function partly to foreshadow the duress Chinonso will endure in pursuit of marriageable status. Even with his chi watching over him, Chinonso is changed by the external hostility he encounters. His journey is not only a physical one, Obioma suggests, but also a spiritual one. Where a less skillful author’s descriptions of inner tumult might register as clichés, Obioma manages to elevate his characters’ transformations: In one scene, he writes that Chinonso “spoke with great care, as if his tongue was a wet priest in the sanctuary of his mouth.” Of the first blossoming of the central pair’s love, the farmer’s chi marvels:

It seemed that by some mysterious means, she had been able to read the intents of his heart, which had all along cast themselves upon his face like a presence. And she had come to understand, by some alchemy, that the smile he’d carried on his face all along was his body’s struggle to manage the solemn intransigence of its volcanic desire.

Because Obioma pays such remarkable attention to the power of language, it’s particularly striking how rarely the author brings that focus to bear on Ndali and the other women whose affections have buttressed Chinonso’s life. Depictions of Ndali veer between hagiography and dismissal; Obioma mostly portrays Ndali’s interior conflicts through her lover’s questions about her loyalty. An Orchestra of Minorities, which echoes the name Chinonso’s late father gave to singing birds, concerns itself chiefly with the actions and psychic rumblings of men. In this familiar formula, women all too often serve as either motivation or collateral damage. This is also notably, if also regrettably, classical.

Still, Obioma writes with an exigent precision that makes An Orchestra of Minorities feel at once timely and speculative. The novel aches with Chinonso. His triumphs are rare and hard-won. Obioma compels the reader to root for him, to see the poor chicken farmer’s story as an epic.