An Orchestra of Minorities is a wonderful but demanding read

Obioma's 'An Orchestra of Minorities' has echoes of 'Things Fall Apart' and Homer's 'Odyssey', writes Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi

10 March 2019 - 00:00

Chigozie Obioma's highly praised, Man Booker-nominated second novel An Orchestra of Minorities is demanding. It's beautiful (with an inviting cover), but it's also a book greedy for your undivided attention.
The novel is partly inspired by the author's personal experiences when he was a student in Cyprus. As told to the Guardian, Obioma met many fellow Nigerians, destitute immigrants who had been scammed by middlemen pretending to be enrolling them into universities there. Obioma's friend, Jay, also Nigerian, experienced a lot of racism in the country and was eventually found dead at the bottom of a lift shaft.
It was this harrowing experience that pushed Obioma to write this book. But the black immigrant in Cyprus storyline only shows up later, in the novel's second act.
So, what's the story? An Orchestra of Minorities is about a 26-year-old poultry farmer, Chinoso, who one day sees a woman about to jump off a bridge. In a bid to save her, he throws two of his prized chickens into the water below, to show her the awful death that awaits her should she jump.
Chinoso is a lonely man. His father died after Chinoso's sister abandoned them to marry an older man (their mother died when they were young). He lives in Umuahia, a rural area untouched by the Westernisation of Nigerian cities. Leading a slow existence rooted in ancient ancestral and cultural beliefs, Chinoso lives for his chickens. They are, in a way, his only company. The book's title refers to the birds in question - beautifully explained in the book.
After a brief romantic encounter that ends suddenly, Chinoso serendipitously meets the woman from the bridge - Ndali - again, and they become lovers. Ndali is tender and loving, and she comes from a very wealthy family. Despite their mismatch, the two make a beautiful couple. As you read about their time together and Chinoso's intense affection for her, you cannot help but root for them.
The story is told from the perspective of Chinoso's chi, a guiding spirit whose job is not to control his host's actions, but to protect him from his own bad decisions in order for him to have a good fate.
An Orchestra of Minorities is divided into three acts: Chinoso's rural and then slightly Westernised existence in Umauhia; his harrowing experiences as a black immigrant who is scammed in a time filled with racism, violence and hatred; and then Chinoso's return to his homeland and old life, with devastating consequences
The narration is confusing at first, with the chi - who is hundreds of years old and has guided many people that he often references in the book - on trial for his host, pleading with spiritual elders to spare Chinoso from damnation after he commits an unforgivable act.
About the relationship between the lovers, the chi says: "My host's affection for Ndali was tempered by his fear that he was unworthy of her. He resolved that if she ever gave into him, he would give her the fullness of his heart."
It's this resolution that leads Chinoso to sell everything he owns, including his home, to attend university in Cyprus and get an education that will impress Ndali's family, who refuse to accept him as they believe he is unworthy of their daughter.
"The confidence he'd arrived with, like an egg in a calabash, was already broken by the time he sat at the table with the family," narrates his chi when Chinoso meets Ndali's kin for the first time.
But the Chinoso who returns from Cyprus is not the same one who left Nigeria.
As his chi tells us early in the book: "Anger ... often becomes a multiparous cat who bears litters of offspring, and it had already birthed jealousy and doubt in him."
Obioma's storytelling is rich in detail, metaphors, smaller stories and analogies, but some of them aren't necessary and don't propel the story forward. If anything, they drag on and slow it down. He is a fabulous writer, but is prone to overwriting, and it sometimes borders on purple prose.
An Orchestra of Minorities is, in parts, reminiscent of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (it sounds like a lazy comparison, but it's an appropriate one), and it's a Nigerianised version of Homer's Odyssey. It feels like a Greek tragedy set in two very different Nigerias: Chinoso's rural world and Ndali's Westernised city world.
As wonderful as it is, the story would have benefited from giving us just a little less...

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