Chinonso is a poultry farmer in Umuahia, Nigeria. One day he prevents a woman, Ndali, from leaping to her death and a relationship blossoms. Unfortunately, however, Ndali is the daughter of a well-to-do local chieftain who thinks Chinonso too lowly for his offspring. To demonstrate that he’s made of the right stuff, he sells his poultry farm and moves to Cypress to earn a degree. It’s not really an exaggeration to say, as far as Chinonso is concerned, things largely go from bad to worse…
That, by and large, is the ‘story’ of An Orchestra of Minorities, the second novel from celebrated Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma (whose debut, The Fishermen, won a gaggle of awards and award nominations and saw Obioma himself named one of Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2015). But there is a lot more to An Orchestra of Minorities than this. For one thing, it’s earned a lot of comparisons with George Saunders’ Booker winning Lincoln in the Bardo. The reason for this is that An Orchestra of Minorities is told by Chinonso’s ‘chi’, his guardian spirit, which lives inside him and connects Chinonso to the long and varying history of his ancestors. His chi will often step out of Chinonso to relate a story of someone long dead who the chi previously inhabited.
“In my last cycle, I guided an extraordinarily gifted man who read books and wrote stories, Ezike Nkeoye, who was the older brother of the mother of my present host. By the time he was my current host’s age, he’d come to be familiar with almost every word in the language of the White Man.”
There is a version of An Orchestra of Minorities that would not mention Chinonso at all. You could say this was a book about a chi’s latest incarnation, a chi struggling to understand the modern world in which we find ourselves, trying to understand phones and travel and fashion and culture and societal difference between old times and newer times. Chinonso’s chi is also performing another function, and that seems to be pleading for Chinonso’s life before some celestial court, before “the old fathers ascribed names and honorifics too numerous to count”:
“Chukwu, Egbunu, Oseburuwa, Ezeuwa, Ebubedike, Gaganaogwu, Agujiegbe, Obasidinelu, Agbatta-Alumalu, Ijango-Ijango, Okaaome, Akwaakwuru, and many more -“
Each chapter of the book begins with the chi imploring one of these names, in order that they hear what the chi has to say and, in the great, cosmic summation of a person’s life, grant him leniency for – whatever it is that we come to learn that he has done.
There are moments, such as when we hear where the book’s title comes from, when the novel is tremendously affecting. It’s no small feat to tell what is essentially a dark, tragic story in an exuberant way that rarely feels depressing (and fans of Ben Okri’s Booker-winning The Famished Road will find much to like here). When Obioma lands his hard political points – as he does when Chinonso is compared to his chickens (“They have no sharp fingers, no poisonous tongues like snakes, no sharp teeth, no claws!”), it’s impossible not to feel passionately roused:
“All who had been chained and beaten, whose lands had been plundered, whose civilisations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed and killed. With all those people, he’d come to share a common fate. They were all minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.”
At the same time, however, there is a sense that for this reader at least An Orchestra of Minorities was not an entirely sustained performance. The final third of the book where Chinonso emerges from his greatest trial and returns home to come to terms with where life has left him, granting him passage to exact revenge (Count of Monte Cristo-like) doesn’t work as well as the first two thirds. One reason for this is that much of the action that changes Chinonso happens off-camera (we’re told not shown). At the same time, there are details, sentences, passages that could easily have been edited out without damaging the book at all (such as Chinonso’s orientation and an early unresolved relationship with a local woman). It is also worth saying that, just as with a great many modern novelists, Obioma is taking an ancient tale (in this case The Odyssey) and repurposing it to tell a modern story – but unlike a great many modern novelists who do this and afford their reader the respect to ‘get it’, Obioma keeps telling us what he is doing (The Odyssey is mentioned a good half dozen times as the book races to its climax – “we get it”, the reader wants to say).
Even with these caveats, though, An Orchestra of Minorities is a bravura performance. Obioma is a gifted writer and there are times when the novel reads like an African Grapes of Wrath. This is a book wrestling with a grand tradition, boiling up the history of a continent into a seamless narrative that resonates with modernity. We are keenly interested in seeing where he takes us next.
Any Cop?: Whilst not a whole-hearted, 5 out of 5, big thumb’s up from us, we’d certainly recommend An Orchestra of Minorities to anyone interested in writers busy pushing at the conventions of the novel.