Book review: An Orchestra of Minorities,Chigozie Obioma

Told in a mythic style involving the Igbo cosmology of Nigeria, An Orchestra of Minorities is the narrative voice of the protagonist Chinonso’s chi or resident Guardian Spirit

Author Chigozie Obioma, writing from experience, wins again, for literature, Nigeria.

A strong vein of lyrical melancholy runs through this epic Nigerian novel, Chigozie Obioma’s second, about love, longing, mysticism and the experience of being a minority, an outsider looking in, yearning. As the Man Booker prize finalist declaims: ‘spiritually, we are all minorities, small things’.

Told in a mythic style involving the Igbo cosmology of Nigeria, An Orchestra of Minorities is the narrative voice of the protagonist Chinonso’s chi or resident Guardian Spirit, the one that guides its host, poultry farmer Chinonso through life, but never imposing its own will. The chi tries to warn, gently persuade, put in a thought … and occasionally watches helplessly as the inevitable happens.

The novel opens around 2013, with Chinonso’s chi pleading his case in a divine court of appeal, explaining to the prime God Chukwu (‘creator of all’), that Chinonso Solomon Olisa has committed a great crime in error, unknowingly. What follows is Chinonso’s life story.

Rural Nigeria, around 2007, finds Chinonso stopping a suicide bid. Ndali, the urban-educated, rich daughter of a Nigerian tribal chief thus escapes a watery grave — but gentle sensitive Chinonso has moved on with his beloved fowls. While the rescuer and rescued do wonder about each other, it takes some time for the two to meet again.

What follows is a passionate, physical love affair cutting across differences in status and education. When they express their wish to marry, the girl’s family is aghast at this audacious intent of a reclusive young barely schooled poultry farmer, sans family. There is stiff resistance.

This section reveals truths about a developing colonial society with it inequalities. Invited unwillingly, to Ndali’s father’s 16th birthday party, Chinonso finds himself humiliated by Ndali’s brother, who terms him a Church Rat. Post this happening and some more bad vibes, Chinonso decides to complete his education, since Ndali reveals that his comparative illiteracy was the stumbling block, more than his orphan-poor status.

Even as he is contemplating the acquisition of a college degree locally, pure trusting Chinonso falls under the spell of an old school friend Jamike who has returned from Northern Cyprus — with tales of college education through three quick years, easy availability of jobs and money, entry to Europe, the UK and USA, the works. And Chinonso finds himself in a position of selling his beloved flock, almost all he owns — so as to finance his studies and stay in Cyprus. Jamike collects, arranges — and as Chinonso leaves Nigeria, a heartbroken Ndali agrees to what she thinks is a temporary separation and uncertain foreign sojourn.

It is from here that the story becomes a sort of Homeric Odyssey, as Chinonso/Odysseus soon enough discovers that he has been conned. In a foreign land that has become home to many more disillusioned Nigerians, a devastated Chinonso stumbles through more than four years of misadventures that includes racism, poverty, sympathy, misunderstanding, even a long spell of dehumanising incarceration. He finally manages to return home — and is still hopeful about reuniting with a waiting Ndali — who has done whatever destiny decreed.

Tested and beaten, survivor Chinonso, back in Nigeria, initially seems to have attained peace — but fate tricks the impassioned man into an act that brings his chi to the celestial court, pleading the case of an unlikely villain, his host Chinonso. This Nigerian epic novel thus ends as a Greek tragedy.

Beyond the story, there are many discoveries to be made. There is some quiet African wisdom and humour: most things can go wrong, which is ‘why the old fathers say that the fact that a millipede has more than a hundred legs does not mean that he is a great runner.’

The story is set in places as far apart as Nigeria, Turkey occupied North Cyprus — and the domain of Igbo spiritland. The protagonist’s chi often takes leave of his host, wanders the realm, meets and converses with other spirits good and bad, then quickly returns to his unprotected host Chinonso.

At Istanbul airport, while Chinonso is on his way to Cyprus, Chinonso’s chi has sauntered out to take stock of what already looks like a fraudulent situation. “A ghost sat by itself on the floor of the airport, unmoved by people who walked in and out through…”

The title of the novel echoes parallels: whenever tension strikes (as in the form of a swooping hawk), Chinonso’s flock of fowls squawk in unison, setting up what comes across as a dirge-like music from an orchestra. Similarly, disadvantaged people survive with dignity, fighting off human hawks.

Even Chinonso’s birds (including a childhood companion, a gosling) — come alive as characters. They squawk, demand food. Use of Igbo language, pidgin and regular English — all add to the feel. Author Chigozie Obioma, writing from experience, wins again, for literature, Nigeria.

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