Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2019

An Orchestra of Minorities, by Chigozie Obioma

If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be the heroes in the story of the hunt.

It was the Johannesburg Review of Books that alerted me to Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma’s new novel. They published an interview with the author before the book was released, the catalyst for me to pounce on it as soon as it hit the shelves at the library.  Since then it has been reviewed by Linda Jaivin at The Saturday Paper (paywalled, but you can access one free viewing per week) and there’s an extract at The Monthly as well, for readers to sample the author’s style.

The extract — without any context — may confuse readers a little because the narrator addresses Chukwu, Egbunu, Ebubedike, Gaganaogw, and Agujiegbe as he tells his tale, and he also addresses a would-be suicide as his Mommy (when she isn’t).  Well, unless you already know that Chukwu is the supreme being in Igbo cosmology, you need to read Chapter One to understand that these names and honorifics are the old fathers of the spirit world, before whom Chinonso’s chi argues his case lest Ala raise her hand against him. Chinoso has broken a moral code that merits her retribution, and his chi (guardian spirit) is desperate to explain the circumstances.

This is why I have hastened here to testify of all I have witnessed and to persuade you and the great goddess that if what I fear has happened is true, let it be understood that he has committed this great crime in error, unknowingly—
Although I will narrate most things in my own words, they will be true because he and I are one.  His voice is my voice.  To speak of his words as if he were distinct from me is to render my own words as if they were spoken by another.  (p.4)

Obioma shot to international literary fame when in 2015 his debut novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Booker (see my review), and this novel has an idiosyncratic narrative voice as well.  The chi is discursive, fulsome, and very persuasive as he retells the story of a self-made man not good enough for the nouveau-riche of Nigeria.  When Chinonso is comprehensively insulted, shamed, and threatened because of his love for the wealthy Ndali who loves him in return, she tells him that it’s not because he is a lowly poultry farmer, because her father could easily buy him a business, a job, a property to make him acceptable.  What her father objects to is that he doesn’t have an education, in a society where a degree in something or other is a prerequisite that supersedes honesty, integrity, determination, compassion or hard work.  To her, his status doesn’t matter, but it’s an insuperable obstacle all the same.

That ‘deficiency’ is the one thing that Chinonso thinks he can change, so (#NoSpoiler as the back blurb tells us so) he sells most of his possessions to attend university in Cyprus.  The tragedy that unfolds there is perhaps a common story, but in Obioma’s novel, this love story-thriller is unputdownable.  Will Chinonso’s Penelope wait for him during the years of his unwilling Odyssey?

The chi tells us that he begun to try to make Chinonso forget Ndali, but realises that such efforts are often futile.

Love is a thing that cannot be lightly destroyed in a heart where it has found habitation. (p.386)

Almost to the very end of this bewitching novel the narrator withholds the truth of what Chononso has done, and focusses instead on what fate has done to him.

Obioma resists a heavy-handed expose of Nigeria’s social and political problems, but the title is instructive.  The ‘orchestra of minorities’ is a term used by Chinonso’s father.  Ndali understands it for the first time when a hawk steals one of Chinonso’s chickens and she hears the birds crying in a coordinated song, the kind they sing during burial ceremonies.  It is a song of sorrow, sung by defenceless birds which depend on humans to protect them.  And she cries with the chickens, because she and her lover are also powerless…  against her father who opposes their love:

…’I am sad for them, Nonso.  And I am sad for us, also.  Like them I am crying inside because we don’t have power against those who are against us.  Mostly against you.  You are nothing to them.’ (p.290)

We should all cry about snobbery, corruption, exploitation, and people preying on the vulnerabilities of the naïve and wickedness for which no restitution can ever adequately restore what has been lost…

Highly recommended.

PS One of the interesting aspects of this book is the setting in Cyprus with its ongoing sovereignty dispute between Turkey and Greece.  Chinonso visits Varusha, and it’s worth finding out about this abandoned modern ruin under the Turkish Occupation so that you can visualise it.

Author: Chigozie Obioma
Title: An Orchestra of Minorities
Publisher: Little Brown, 2019, 515 pages
ISBN: 9780349143194
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. I had the opportunity to see Chigozie Obioma in New York City during his book tour for ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’. Obioma provided a brief overview of the chi, central to Igbo cosmology as you mention Lisa. Like the author’s previous novel, ‘The Fisherman’, he deals with philosophical issues of existence, love, and survival.

    Lisa, based on the excerpt from the story, it may be confusing for some readers to understand the novel’s context if they don’t have some knowledge of African culture. Even though, I don’t think it’s the novelist’s responsibility to teach readers about particular themes/ topics or issues, it is important for the novelist’s to provide a context for readers to gain insight into the narrative.

    What I hope to gain in reading ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ in the near future is an understanding of Igbo cosmology as entryway into the intertwined narratives of Chinonso and Ndali, through the narration of Chinonso’s Chi. This novel seems more complex than ‘The Fisherman’. Obioma continues the rich tradition of African literature.

    Like

    • Yes, that’s exactly what I thought about that excerpt, it makes the book look more difficult than it is. I didn’t (still don’t) have any understanding of Igbo cosmology but there’s a diagram and an introduction to set the scene, and that’s all you need. I romped through the book with no difficulty, taking it on the same terms as with Greek or Norse mythology and their cosmology of gods.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa, you make an interesting textual connection with mythology. Good point!
    Sonia

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed The Fishermen. Not sure about this one though

    Like


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