Atypical Love Story

As vast as the African continent itself, African literature is an extensive and diverse territory, with may nooks and crannies that are in want of deep exploration. It is also equally colorful as the culture and the denizens that populate the expansive stretch of the world’s second largest continent. With the dawn of technology, African literature is slowly making its ascent to the global stage. With Nigerian Wole Soyinka’s unprecedented victory in the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature plum, it has became clear that there is no other way but up for African writers.

Following in Solinka’s steps is his countryman, Chigozie Obioma. The publication of his debut novel, The Fisherman,  in 2015 created a splash and was met with overwhelming positive critical reviews. Dodging the dreaded sophomore writing block curse, his second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, was an equally impressive work which was met with even more applause as it ended being shortlisted in the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It fell short of taking home the bacon but it did enough to elevate Obioma to even greater literary heights.

Set mostly in Umuahia, Nigeria, An Orchestra of Minorities follows the story of a young Nigerian man named Chinonso. An Orphan, he was struggling to make ends meet as a poultry farmer. His uneventful life took a drastic turn when he stopped a young woman from committing suicide. This young woman, Ndali, was a trainee pharmacist whose long-time boyfriend married another woman.

“Guardian spirits of mankind, have we thought about the powers that passion creates in human beings? Have we considered why a man could run through a field of fire to get to a woman he loves? Have we thought about the impact of love on the body of lovers? Have we considered the symmetry of its power? Have we considered what poetry incites in their souls, and the impress of endearments on a softened heart?” ~ Chigozie Obioma, An Orchestra of Minorities

As fate would have it, Nonso slowly fell in love with Ndali and after a long and frustrating courtship, Nonso finally won over Ndali’s heart. It is this very same fate which also played a cruel game. Born from an affluent family, Ndali’s family were averse towards the relationship. Cognizant that earning a degree is the only way to win over Ndali’s parents, Nonso sold his properties and enrolled in a prestigious university in Northern Cyprus.

When it rains, it pours. This is an old and hackneyed line that aptly summarized one half of what An Orchestra of Minorities is about. With one misfortune, more misfortunes follow. Such is the irony of life. However, in the end, what matters is how we pull ourselves together and rise above our misfortunes and adversities. There is no triumph without any tribulations. Our tribulations have an eerily humanizing and humbling effect on us. In this riveting tale, Chinonso learned the realities of life the hard way.

Ah. The misfortunes of man! Interestingly, An Orchestra of Minorities threads familiar and trite story lines. It starts with an impoverished young man who fell in love with a rich young woman. He is willing to do everything – pull out the stars if he can – to impress her and win over her family’s approval. It is these fundamental and hackneyed story lines, however, that made An Orchestra of Minorities a universal tale. The novel also drew strength from this fundamentality.

Contrary to expectations, this novel is no mundane poor man-rich woman romance story. Obioma, inspired by his roots and colorful traditions, gave the familiar concepts its distinct Nigerian flavor and twist. With acuity, the diverse and colorful elements of Igbo cosmology and mythology were dexterously woven into the tapestry of the story. The story itself was primarily narrated by Nonso’s chi, or guardian spirit, who, time and again, would communicate with the chi of other characters in the story.

“The true state of a man is when he is alone. For when he is alone, some of all that has come to constitute his being – the profound emotions, and the profound motives of the heart – rise from deep within him up to the surface of his being. This is why when a man is alone, his face wears a look that is distinct from anything there is. This is a face no one will ever see or encounter. For when another comes to him, that face retracts like a tentacle and presents the other with something else, something akin to a new face.” ~ Chigozie Obioma, An Orchestra of Minorities

Most chapters opened with ruminations of the chi. “Ijango-Ijango, over many sojourns in the human world, I have heard the venerable fathers, in their kaleidoscopic profundity, say that no matter the weight of grief, nothing can compel the eyes to shed tears of blood,” opened one chapter. The omniscient chi played a centrifugal role in the story. Treated like a distinct character, it has its own thoughts and acts on its own accord.

Chinonso’s experiences in Cyprus was inspired by Obioma’s friend, Jay’s story. It is the story of racism, violence, and  betrayal. It is the story of how the gullible and vulnerable are being taken advantage of by sly con men. The weaknesses of others are continuously being abused. One major scene in Cyprus, vividly captured by Obioma’s writing, is a homage to current realities. This underlined the echoes that emanate from uncharged corners of the world.

A dark and heavy atmosphere hover above most of the the story. An Orchestra of Minorities is a generally dark tale that mirror several existing realities in the contemporary period. Despite its dark shades, there are several redeeming points as well. Beacons of hope were mapped in the story. As the story progressed, forgiveness and redemption were recurring themes. The structure of the story roughly echoes that of Homer’s Odyssey. Several elements of the story – the exile to Northern Cyprus, the various challenges he faced while he was there, and, ultimately, Chinonso’s own Penelope – are references to the Greek myth.

An Orchestra of Minorities showcase Obioma’s repertoire. He has a keen sense of story telling and his figurative language is rich and vivid. Several African literary influences were finely textured into the tapestry of the story. Obioma’s voice, however, remained distinct all throughout the narrative.

Despite Obioma’s wonderful language and pure intentions, the overall execution was , at best, pedestrian. The story dragged did not take off to a great start as it dragged and it took some time before a real story emerged. When the real story emerged, it started turning into an overly tragic and dramatic afternoon soap opera. Rather than creating believable and sympathetic characters, Obioma dwelt more on the story’s indelible link with Igbo mythology.

“Every person lives as if oscillating between two realms, unable to anchor his foot in either. This is a strange thing. Let us consider, for example, the intercourse between fear and anxiety. Fear exists because of the presence of anxiety and anxiety because humans cannot see the future. For if only man could see the future, he would be more at peace.” ~ Chigozie Obioma, An Orchestra of Minorities. 

Parts romance, parts coming-of-age, An Orchestra of Minorities explored profound and relevant subjects even though the plot was hardly original nor was its execution perfect. Despite the faulty execution, the book had sparks of Obioma’s brilliance and Africa’s diverse colors. It was loose and some corners needed tightening. It may have spelled the sophomore curse for Obioma but it was also brimming with promise, a promise for Obioma and for African Literature in general.

Ratings:

68%

Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 18%
Writing (25%) – 19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%

When the long list of 2019 Man Booker Prize nominees was released, one of the titles that immediately caught my attention was Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities. It did sound exotic and interesting somehow. I was very happy when I managed to find a hardbound copy of the book in the local bookstore. I was truly looking forward to the experience. It wasn’t entirely bad but it wasn’t great either. I enjoyed the aspects of African culture but the pacing was just too problematic. It was difficult to establish a reading rhythm. I felt that the conclusion was too heavy handed and unsatisfactory.

Book Specs

Author: Chigozie Obioma
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 443
Genre: Coming-of-Age

Synopsis

On the outskirts of Umuahia, Nigera, a young poultry farmer named Chinonso sees a woman about to jump from a highway bridge. Horrified by her recklessness, Chinonso joins her on the roadside and hurls two of his prized chickens into the water below to demonstrate the severity of such a fall. The woman, Ndali, is stopped in her tracks.

Bonded by this night on the bridge, Chinonso and Ndali fall in love and begin to imagine a life together. When Ndali’s wealthy family objects to the union because Chinonso is uneducated, he sells most of his possessions to attend a college in Cyprus. But when he arrives, he discovers that there is no place at the school for him: he has been utterly duped by the young Nigerian who made the arrangements. Penniless, homeless, and furious at a world that continues to relegate him to the sidelines, Chinonso gets further away from his dream, from Ndali, and from the farm he called home.”

About the Author

Chigozie Obioma was born in 1986 in Akure, in the southwestern part of Nigeria. He grew up in a big family, with seven brothers and four sisters. He also grew up speaking three languages – Yoruba, Igbo and English.

Obioma’s love for literature begun at a young age. He was fascinated by Greek mythology and the works of British writers like William Shakespeare, John Milton and John Bunyan. He was also largely influenced by the works of his fellow African writers like Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero, Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, and Camara Laye’s The African Child. Among his non-African influences are Arundathi Roy’s The God of Small Things, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

In 2015, his first novel, The Fishermen, was published to critical acclaim. It ended up being named as one of the best novels of the year by a score of various publications such as The Observer, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist. His second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, was published in January 2019. Just like its predecessor, it gained attention and was cited as one of the best books of the year. It was also shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize. Obioma’s short stories and essays were also published in several prestigious magazines and publications.

Obioma currently teaches at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.