The Rebirth of Tragedy: Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities

I’VE OFTEN BEEN baffled by how difficult it can be to engage people—even literary folk—on the subject of tragedy and its disappearance from the modern era. When it comes to teaching or studying the great, classic tragedies in a classroom setting, there’s no problem. In such contexts, tragedy is a historic art form and both attention and respect are paid to the formal and thematic beauties of the work in question. They’re part of the canon, after all, and while we could debate the notion of a canon till the cows come home, most people will accord full respect to the likes of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Shakespeare.

But they’re studied the way one studies dinosaurs, dodos, and other glorious, extinct things.

Try to talk about the dearth of contemporary works of tragedy, much less the complex cultural and historical reasons for that absence, however, and you are likely to receive a variety of unsatisfying responses. Blank stares are the most common of these responses, but there are those who seem to feel that tragedies are…well, a bummer.

And because my professional life has kept me immersed in various religious communities, I also find that many equate tragedy with nihilism or despair. I’ve been reminded that Christianity, for example, is comic rather than tragic, because it involves the idea of redemption.

I don’t have the space in a book review to demonstrate why such responses represent not only a loss of cultural literacy but also superficial theology. For those who’d like to pursue the subject a little further, you might consider something I wrote once about the “tragic sense of life.”

The one truly insightful response to my questions about the scarcity of contemporary tragedy came from the critic, Alan Jacobs, who suggested to me that the form lived on in contemporary African literature. Because my maternal grandparents spent most of their adult lives in South Africa, I have always felt a deep affinity for the continent, appreciating its natural and cultural riches and empathizing—or attempting to—with its devastating conflicts and calamities.

Why is it that the new tragedians might be found in Africa? That’s a question of a magnitude several times greater than can be contained within a book review, but I think it is one worth exploring. Perhaps like the American South after the Civil War, Africa has known the horrors of defeat and loss (though without the degree of culpability belonging to the Confederacy). Certainly Africa has suffered through the dark legacy of colonialism and the insidious complications and burdens it left in its wake. Perhaps also the cynicism and postmodern irony so prevalent in the developed nations have not entirely eroded African sensibilities.

The book that has awakened these considerations is An Orchestra of Minorities, the second novel by Chigozie Obioma, a Nigerian novelist whose debut volume, The Fishermen, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In The Fishermen Obioma tells a classic coming of age story of four brothers, who, while going out to fish against their parents’ wishes, encounter a strange, ragged figure who predicts that one of them will kill the eldest. It’s a story that operates both as a taut, driven, realistic narrative—full of dread, yes, but also of deep insight into its characters and the historical moment they inhabit—and something of an allegory about the fratricidal tendencies of Nigerian society and politics.

An Orchestra of Minorities is a more ambitious book. Some have called it an epic, perhaps influenced by the way that Homer’s Odyssey features in the narrative. But the more salient formal element is that of tragedy, for it continues to explore the tragic mode first encountered in The Fishermen.

As a recent article based on an interview with Obioma puts it: “Without meaning to, Chigozie Obioma fell in love with tragedies. As a child in Akure, Nigeria, he devoured Greek myths at the library; plucked Shakespeare plays from his father’s shelves; and absorbed cautionary folktales from the southeastern Igbo tribe, passed down by his mother.” He is quoted as saying: “I’m always trying to figure out: Why do bad things happen to you when you don’t seem to deserve it?”

Orchestra centers on Chinonso, a poultry farmer from the provincial town of Umuahia, whose parents have died and whose sister has disappeared into the city of Lagos. One day Nonso sees a woman about to throw herself off a bridge. He rushes up to her and in attempting to dissuade her he throws a couple of his chickens over the bridge—an act that is not only a simple demonstration of the horror she is about to commit but in a mysterious way also a sacrifice. The woman, Ndali, relents. Later, they meet and become lovers.

The problem is that Ndali is the daughter of a wealthy chief, one who consorts with regional governors and other members of the Nigerian elite. Nonso goes to an event at Ndali’s home, hoping to make a good impression, but he is instead humiliated and disgraced by her family. This is a society in which class and wealth play as much of a role as they do in novels by Dickens or Austen.

Traumatized though this experience is, Nonso vows to become worthy in the eyes of Ndali’s family. With the help of a friend, he applies to attend a university in Cyprus, selling his poultry farm and his ancestral home in order to afford the fees.

Things do not go well in Cyprus, bringing about a dark metamorphosis as this gentle lover of birds turns into a man consumed by bitterness and rage.

In a clever twist, the narrator of Orchestra is Nonso’s chi or guardian spirit, according to the ancient Igbo cosmology. This chi presents the story as his defense of Nonzo before God, a plea for understanding and mercy.

Obioma’s use of the chi—a figure reminiscent of the angels in Wim Wender’s film, Wings of Desire—connects us to the rich wisdom of this culture, one that has often been eclipsed in Africa by Westernizing tendencies. Christianity also plays a central role in the novel: Ndali’s family is Catholic while one of Nonso’s friends becomes an evangelist.

In both of Obioma’s books, Christianity is depicted as both one of the worst things—a hypocritical veil draped over oppression, prejudice, and greed—but also one of the best things—capable of inspiring true compassion (in the sense of suffering-with).

These two faces of Christianity in Obioma’s books may appeared to cancel out. They certainly prevent his narratives from becoming didactic. But this balanced approach affords the attentive reader the freedom she needs to ponder which face seems the truest—and, in the end, the most humanly persuasive.

Like many lengthy, ambitious novels, Orchestra sags a bit in the middle, but the relentless drive toward its tragic conclusion is mesmerizing.

In the Time magazine interview, Obioma says: “We’re like Chinonso’s chickens: when a hawk carries one of our children off, all we can do is take it.” Of course, that sort of acceptance is hard to come by: the urge to seek revenge, to lash out against fate, is nearly impossible to resist.

“Taking it” is another way of saying: enduring the onslaught of evil and the blind forces of necessity with sacrificial love. It’s worth recalling that there is an etymological connection between the word we use for Christ’s “passion” and “passive.” But the truth is that Christ’s endurance was anything but passive: inwardly, in secret, it shines with active charity.

It’s at the cross where tragedy and comedy are forever joined.

Great tragedies, like An Orchestra of Minorities, evoke our fear and pity because we witness individuals who fail to accept their crosses—and yet in those moments our hearts cry out for the redemption we cannot achieve for ourselves.