Author: Chigozie Obioma.
Publication Details: Little, Brown Book Group; Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment London, 2019.

Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, a 2019 shortlisted Man Booker Prize realistic fictional narrative, is aggrandized in native color; rich in Igbo mythology and these tend to be the source for its representation of contemporary realities. This masterpiece by the Nebraska-Lincoln-based Assistant Professor presents itself in its richness and grandeur to the literary world.

His debut novel, The Fisherman, a contemporary lyrical ‘retelling’ of the tale of the Biblical Cain and Abel, has bought many critical recognitions to itself:  finalist of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2015; winner of the FT/OPPENHEIMER emerging voices prize for fiction; winner of the 2016 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Debut Literary Work; winner of the Nebraska book award 2016-fiction category. The ‘heir to Chinua Achebe’ as has been called by a New York Times magazine heightens and garnishes the infusion of Igbo mythology in fiction with the publication of his second magical realistic work, An Orchestra of Minorities, which, no doubt, will magnet to itself critical readings, studies and awards; already a shortlisted narrative for best Translated Fiction for Winter 2020 in France.

Chinonso Solomon Olisa, the one who is caught between the claws of fate, is a poultry farmer who grows up to be an unambitious and introverted young man until chance intertwines his destiny with that of Ndali Obialor, a pharmacist in training. Their fated meeting on a dusky night, on his way back from Enugu to Umuahia, puts him in the position of being her savior when she supposedly tries to drown herself. However, their love-lost seems to counter economic and social balance as her family forbids their union because of his low and educational background. It is against this backdrop that he envisions a university education in the bid to make himself eligible for a woman of her caliber. Well, it is at this point that he gets a chance to meet with Jamike, an old classmate, who offers to help him secure admission into a Cyprian university. But unbeknown to him, Jamike is a known fraudster and, thus, swindles him of all his proceeds from the sale of his compound as well as his poultry. His tragedy starts as he finds himself in a foreign land stranded, later falsely accused, jailed, and deported after four years only to discover that his heartthrob, Ndali, is already married with a son whom he later discovers to be his offspring. This heartbreak and trauma lead him to commit a crime against Ala as he sets Ndali’s pharmacy shop ablaze, consuming her and her unborn baby in the fire.

Chinonso’s Chi is an important character in the narrative which is very impossible to be overlooked in the work. Chinua Achebe, in his ‘Chi in Igbo Cosmology,’ views Chi as a person’s ‘other identity in spirit land – his spirit being complementing his terrestrial human being’ (qt in An Orchestra, 2). It (his Chi) is portrayed in the novel as Nonso’s alter ego or foil. Together with its host, it goes through his love tale, sufferings, hardships, and tragedy, and also the one who sits in the court of Oseburuwa to account and appeal for leniency for the crime committed by its host. It is his guide, helper, and intercessor, endowed with only little extra power more than its host; it is bound by his physical sight unless when it exits his body, banned from persuading its host on decision making, but only has the capability to impress it on his mind. As evinced in the text: ‘There are times when a man cannot fully understand his feelings, and neither can his Chi’ (CHP 3). ‘There is little a Chi can do to a man whose spirit is broken’ (CHP 4). ‘A Chi cannot go against the will of its host neither can it compel its host against his will’ (CHP 4).

The twenty-six-chaptered fictional narrative is divided into three parts; First Incantation, Second Incantation, and Third Incantation. Each chapter has its own subtitle, for instance, ‘The Woman on the Bridge.’ The first part captures Nonso’s life through his departure to Cyprus, the second portrays his life in Cyprus, while the third part completes his tragedy and sin against Ala.

It is majorly situated in Umuahia, Nigeria, and Cyprus where he attempts to undergo his studies. Other settings include; Beigwe, Alandiichie, Enugu, to mention but these three. The narrative navigates from the ancestral life of Nonso’s Chi through the post-independent contemporary life of its present host, that is, its superhuman timescale of memory as well as its ability to transcend into its host’s corporeality.

An Orchestra of Minorities is a first-person account of Chinonso’s life on earth before the court of Oseburuwa, the creator, in Beigwe. Obioma uses this unique and novel narrative style to transcend beyond human capability into the metaphysical plane, to enable the detailed account of the protagonist’s life, both before, during, and after his sojourn on earth. There is also experimentation on this rare narrative style when the Chi removes itself from being the reporter of Chinonso’s life to Egbunu, allowing Jamike to narrate directly his counsel to Chinonso. This can be said to mean that the text has two narrators; Chininso’s Chi and Jamike.  It employs a great and unique narrative style which will endear further studies to itself by critics.

Obioma conjoins Chinonso, his Chi, Ndali, (major characters) Elochukwu, Jamike, Ndiichie, Chuka, (minor characters) to mention but these, in his efficient characterization to portray the physical and metaphysical realm of life. Although Nonso can be looked at as the protagonist, his other self –his Chi– can be proven to contend for that position with him. This is by reason of the fact that it (his Chi) is not just a reporter in Egbunu’s court, it also partakes in all the travails of its host including its corporeal voyage into the land of Alandiichie, caves of spirits, and Beigwe –in which its host is absented from these metaphysical realms. These show that he moves the actions more than its host.

Its diction is simple but evocative, merging both the Igbo, English, and Turkish language. There is also a smooth glide from the usage of English in its pure form into its adulterated nature, otherwise known as Pidgin English. As evinced in the conversation between Nonso and Ndali’s gateman;

o-oh.  I be ordinary gateman.’‘Do you know when she go come?’
‘No, they no dey tell me that kain thing.

chapter 21 An Orchestra of Minorities

Also, there are experiments on code-switching and code-mixing, for instance;’ belonging neither there nor here, permanently in a state of odinduonwukanma,” An innocent man, onye-aka-ya kwuoto.’ Obioma also utilized a good command of Igbo proverbs and parables to enrich the verbal composition of the text.

Inasmuch as An Orchestral of Minorities is a modern love story that painstakingly examines despair, the war against destiny, and human determination, it can be said to center more on class distinction and man’s helplessness when subjected under it. It is against this backdrop that the narrative takes its title from this idea –An Orchestra of Minorities. This, according to the novel, is coined by Nonso’s father as he observes the symphonic wails of the chickens at the mercy of their predators, hawks. Nonso’s poultry farm and his defense of the hapless chickens can, thus, be viewed to be a microcosm of the larger society and a foreshadow of his life here. That is the reason, in his moment of haplessness in Cyprus; he alludes to his present position as that of:

A poultry farmer named Jamike Nwaorji, having groomed him for some time, having plucked excess feathers from his body, having fed him with mash and millet, having let him graze about gaily, having probably staunched a leg wounded by a stray nail, had now sealed him up in a cage.  And all he could do now, all there was to do now, was cry and wail.  He had now joined many others, all the people Tobe had listed who have been defrauded of their belongings the Nigerian girl near the police station, the man at the airport, all those who have been captured against their will to do what they did not want to do either in the past or the present, all who have been forced into joining an entity, they do not wish to belong to, and countless others.  All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilizations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed and killed.  With all these people, he’d come to share a common fate.  They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail. 

chapter 14, An Orchestra of Minorities

But Ndali is the one that first makes this comparison after observing the chickens without weapons to find their predators. In her words;

You see?  Why?  Because they are umuobere-ihe, minorities.  See what the powerful have done to us in this country.  See what they have done to you and weak things.

Chapter 14. An Orchestra of Minorities

As has been noted, this narrative under review combines Igbo Cosmology with realist fiction. It embeds Igbo mythology of the interaction and recycling of the dead, the unborn, and the living. It vividly accounts the belief that a man who commits no sin against Ala while living is granted passage into the Alandiichie after which his Onyeuwa is reincarnated. An offender, on the other hand, is denied passage and reincarnation and afterward turns into a vagrant or evil spirit tormenting and causing havoc on the souls of the living. This narrative goes further to explain the existence of ‘men and women who are mentally ill, epileptic, men with abominable passions, murderers of their own parents and others’ (CHP 1), thereby justifying that they were not originally created like that. It also takes into cognizance different Igbo gods and deities including Ala (the great mother), Kamanu (the sun god), Ekwensu (the trickster), and the vagrant spirits; Akaliogolis, Amosu and various vagabond discarnate beings.

Both Igbo and non-Igbo anthropologists will find this great work of fiction of immense companionship. It is also recommended for undergraduate and postgraduate literature students as it will hold the gaze of any scholar that comes under its sway. This is because it will help in their criticisms which, among other things, includes; Archetype/Mythic criticism especially the Myth of Sisyphus when on an intense study of the character of Nonso as well as that of Ndali.

However, despite the grandeur in verbal structures, the aggrandizement of subject matter, richness, and novelty in narrative technique, An Orchestra of Minorities is not without its vagueness and nuances. The influx of languages apart from the dominant English used for its diction goes without further definition or supply of any Endnote, thus, a non-speaker of those languages will find it hard to place the pieces together. These can be seen in his use of Igbo words like; ‘Chai, daalu nu’ (chp13), in his Chi’s greeting to Ndiiichie when he goes to visit them in Alandiichie;

Nde bi na’ Alandiichie, ekene’m unu.
Ibia wo!’  they chorused.
Nde na eche ezi na’ulo Okeoha na Omenkara, ekene mu
Ibia wo!

Chapter 17. An Orchestra of MInorities

The use of native Turkish words is no exception as one encounters words like ‘Tamam,” Genau,’ in the verbal structures. There is also a posing conflict on who the actual protagonist should be; Nonso, as he is the physical main propeller of the actions in the narrative, or his Chi –because it metaphysically partakes in the doings of its host and has more roles than him.

Well, in spite of these nuances, the literary canon has got itself a great work of art in An Orchestra of Minorities. Both general readers and literary critics will find it a handful to devour for their reading pleasure. 

Idoko, Juliet Ebere studied English and Literary Studies at the  University of Nigeria Nsukka. She is a Creative and Critical Writer and was the Critical Writing Editor of The Muse no. 48.