An Orchestra of Minorities review: Chigozie Obioma delivers a contemporary Nigerian tragedy through Igbo cosmology

  • The novel uses a guardian spirit, called the chi, as a very interesting narrator traveling between the mundane and the spirit worlds.

  • The use of this narrator illuminates many wonderful facets of Igbo culture and Nigerian history.

  • However, the novel has a clear gender problem, reproducing tired plot lines and tropes without contending with them adequately.

  • The novel is the story of 'prey', and what being preyed upon does to a human being, including turning preys into predators themselves.

Editor's note: Up to 14 October, when the Man Booker Prize 2019 winner will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing the five books on the shortlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders.

Chigozie Obioma, whose first novel, The Fishermen, was selected as a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2015, has made it back to the 2019 shortlist with his latest effort, An Orchestra of Minorities.

The novel follows the journey of Chinonso Solomon Olisa, a poultry farmer, and a member of the Igbo people of Nigeria. Drawing upon Igbo cosmology, the novel is framed in the voice of Chinonso’s guardian spirit, or chi.
The driving force of the novel is established early in the very form of the novel: the entire book is a lawyer’s defence, conducted by the chi, on behalf of his ward Chinonso. The chi is pleading for his ward before Chukwu, the Supreme God. It seems that Chinonso has committed a horrible crime, but there are mitigating circumstances — the chi believes that he does not deserve the harsh punishment coming to him.

What is this crime? To discover it, we go over the trajectory of his life, from a lonely and depressed orphan, to becoming the accidental saviour of Ndali, a suicidal woman who has been abandoned by her betrothed, to being in a relationship with her. It is to win over her rich family that Chinonso wends his way to Cypress to earn an education. The education in Cypress turns out to be a scam, and Chinonso suffers much before returning to Nigeria to commit his crime.

 An Orchestra of Minorities review: Chigozie Obioma delivers a contemporary Nigerian tragedy through Igbo cosmology

An Orchestra of Minorities, by Chigozie Obioma

Chi makes for a great choice of narrator

The most interesting part of the novel is the utilisation of the voice of the guardian spirit, the chi. Since he is a creature that inhabits both the material, mundane world, and the wild, phantasmagorical world of the spirits, the range of Igbo culture and Nigerian history we cover is wide.

It is as a literary device that the chi primarily functions. Chis reincarnate several times, and have accompanied many mortals on their journey. This is why our chi-narrator can recall events from past lives to supplement our understanding of the present.

One such past life that recurs in flashes in the novel is that of Ejinkeonye, who fought in the Biafran War, the horrifying conflict that claimed more than two million lives. Through him, the memories of the war haunt the pages of the book, without quite bursting to the fore.

One aspect of the chi that produces startling effects is its switching between speaking of the cosmic and the mundane, often right after one another. At first, it speaks of ‘Eluigwe, the land of eternal, luminous light, where the perpetual song of the flute serenades the air’, and then turns to talking about the most mundane realities of our concrete worlds, with their poverty and their squalour. In forcing these two registers to live side by side, and also in showing the inadequacy of all these old gods in defending humans from the disasters impending in their lives, Obioma seems to force the question: are the old ways ever going to be adequate for the new worlds we inhabit, full of deprivation and distrust?

Another way in which the novel works is through tragicomic interruptions. Just as Chinonso is saving Ndali, a random passerby undercuts the gravity of the situation by shouting ‘I hope you are not hoodlums ho’ at them. Similarly, a climactic scene involving violent retribution is interrupted by a power cut.

Power cuts do seem to come at inconvenient times, like when Chinonso is getting his head shaved to prepare for his first date with Ndali, and has to leave the barber’s comically half-bald. Less funny are the ways in which racism interrupts Chinonso’s life in Cypress, cropping up without rhyme or reason, like when a group of children call him Ronaldinho, the Brazillian football star.

The chi can also travel far from the host to see things the host cannot see. It is this partial omniscience of the narrator that is productive as a narrative device. Certainly, the chi cannot anticipate the future — but Chinonso’s chi can know more than his host can. This knowledge does not help the host much, for the chi is often reduced to the role of a Cassandra, trying desperately to tell his host the truth, but not being believed.

I did not evoke Cassandra by accident, for Obioma is drawn to Greek literature. His previous book drew on the idea of a prophecy that fulfills itself, and on Aristotelian ideas of tragedy. This book is self-conscious in its references to the Odyssey. In following these models, Obioma seems to rely strongly on an idea of immutable fate, with human characters drawn inexorably towards their tragedies.

Indeed, the book ends on this terrifying note, describing the limits of human knowing, and of their blundering into the future that awaits them:

The august fathers likened this phenomenon to the spiders in the house of men by saying that anyone who thinks he is almighty, let him look around his house to see if he knew the exact time the spider began to weave its web. This is why a man who will soon be killed might enter the house where those who have come to kill him are lying in wait for him, oblivious to their designs and not knowing his end has come. … Such a man walks into that room without any knowledge that what will kill him will have arrived … so that when it happens, and he realizes and sees it, it will shock him. … For it will seem to such a one that is has happened so suddenly, without warning. And he will not know that it happened long ago, and had merely been patiently waiting for him to notice.

It invites the question: where does this particular fatalism, so unusual for the modern reader, stem from? What is it trying to say about the lives of these communities and their futures?

The chi is also an explanatory device

The chi also allows Obioma to explain many aspects of Igbo culture and beliefs, and indeed of Nigerian history and culture. This anxiety to explain what is going on is present throughout the novel, and is familiar to anyone writing for a Western audience. During my own MFA in Fiction, I found myself worrying constantly about whether I had explained enough.

Often, Obioma over-explains, or does so in a way that is a little too naked, and in violation of the frame of his novel. If indeed the chi is testifying before the supreme god Chukwu, would he have the need to state this? At other times, Obioma masterfully allows the Igbo language and Nigerian Pidgin to breathe within the pages of the novel without translation, for no translation is needed. On the whole, he is more successful in picking what to leave in without explanation, than on deciding what to explain.

At times, however, the explanation is beautiful. Language plays a big role in the novel. Early on, a prostitute further discomfits our protagonist, who has arrived to have his first sexual experience, by demanding he switch to Pidgin as she is not Igbo. At another time, when our protagonist hears the story of the would-be suicide for the first time, her English, a mark of their class difference, haunts him:

“What happened to you is very painful,” he said, although he’d not understood all of it. Her command of the White Man’s language contained more words than he could comprehend. His mind had hovered, for instance, over the word circumstances like a kite over a gathering of hen and chicks, unable to decide how or which to attack. But I [the chi] understood everything she said, because every cycle of a chi’s existence is an education in which a chi acquires the minds and wisdom of its hosts, and these become part of him … In my last cycle, I guided an extraordinarily gifted man who read books and wrote stories, Ezike Nkeoye … 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.

The chi also has a habit of sermonising. While indeed he has to make a case for his host, explaining the motivations for his actions, perhaps he could have done less with a moralising that is both heavy-handed, and, at least to my sensibility, often lacking awareness and wisdom rather than possessing it. The principle failing of the novel, and it is a big, ever-present one, is in terms of gender.

A tiresomely male novel

As can be surmised by the summary so far, this novel has a gender problem. First, we have the trope of a protagonist who ‘rescues’ a suicide, and the suicidal person conveniently falls in love with her rescuer; then we have the other trope of the first sexual experience at a brothel. The book is full of many more such tiresomely familiar turns.

Perhaps the misstep originates in the very material that Obioma seems to prize. Much of Greek literature either presented women as Gods, or as humans who exist mostly to send the male hero off on a quest. To this, he adds our more modern predilection for manic pixie dreamgirls who find male immaturity endearing, and inspire the protagonist into maturity.

Repeatedly, we have women playing this sexual foil for Chinonso, without once discovering what they are thinking and feeling. Often, they behave in ways that are completely unnatural, and yet entirely predictable for anyone who has read too many male writers, as we all have. Finally, misogyny erupts in the book, both in the suspicions of its plot, and in actual violence.

A recurrent theme, sent over very heavily indeed, is the idea of the woman as the man’s property. The man is then cuckolded, and exacts retribution at having been so cuckolded. At first, we have ‘Although she willingly gives herself to him, once he marries her she becomes his’, but later it seems we are only celebrating heterosexual marriage: ‘The woman becomes his possession, and he becomes her possession.’

But this equal and mutual ownership is belied by the very next anecdote:

I have seen many times that people, after their beloveds have left them, try to reclaim them as one would attempt to reclaim property that has been stolen. Wasn’t this the case with Emejuiwe, who, one hundred and thirty years ago, killed the man who took his wife from him? Chukwu, when you laid down your judgment after my testimony on his behalf here in Beigwe, as I am doing now, it was sad but just.

Indeed, the novel turns repeatedly on men taking violent action to restore their claim over their ‘property’ (and never shows women taking similar action to take back their ‘property’). And the chi, who has lived so many lives, instead of wryly undermining these boringly patriarchal ideas, ends up condoning, if not actively justifying them.

The story of the prey

The novel opens with an Igbo proverb which says, ‘If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be the heroes in the stories of the hunt.’ In this way, from the very beginning, we are alerted to the fact that this is the story of prey.

Indeed, Chinonso is preyed upon by exploiters, both in his home country, where the basis is his lower-class position, and more horribly in Cyprus, where he travels to become more ‘worthy’ of Ndali. He is also someone who is constantly shown on the side of the prey, aiming to protect them. Early on, he fells a hawk with his stone catapult before it can attack his fowl; later, we learn that he rescued a gosling when his father had shot its mother, a crucial story from his childhood that he also repeats to Ndali.

But it is in the story of the gosling that the theme of property returns. Though he has rescued the gosling and is caring for it, when a friend steals the gosling from him, Chinonso responds by shooting the bird with a stone, because ‘he’d stopped loving the gosling because it was no longer his’. His friend, in a panic for the bloodied bird, returns it to Chinonso, but the bird dies a few days later.

Perhaps in this small incident, which seems to encapsulate the novel in its entirety, there lies its key: that it is a portrait of what being preyed upon does to a human being. The answer seems to be that the prey turns to violent retribution to express his hurt. It is this that warns us that there is more to the book than meets the eye; that the actions of the protagonist are not just his, but represent the despair of his people, where victims end up victimising others, and the wheels of violence keep on turning. One asks: what is it that breeds this fatalism?

Obioma is a skilled writer, and I recommend reading the novel just for the way it delivers on Igbo mythos, and for its brief invocation of the struggle of Nigerians who travel to Europe in search of opportunity. I remain hopeful, however, that in his future efforts he will pay a little more attention to the narratives of other prey, for whom even characters like Chinonso and his chi remain predators.

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Updated Date: Oct 05, 2019 13:47:09 IST