Booker 2019: An Orchestra of Minorities

3rd September 2019

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

Little, Brown

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Disillusion, distress and disconnection underpin An Orchestra of Minorities. There are human connections, but they are so frequently ambushed and abused that reading it is really quite demanding. Even the humour is hard work, because there’s always a victim. It’s a book for which the concept ‘tragi-comedy’ was invented.

The back cover blurb describes An Orchestra of Minorities as a ‘contemporary twist on Homer’s Odyssey in the mythic style of the Igbo literary tradition’ but there’s certainly no need to be familiar with the classic. An Orchestra of Minorities stands on its own as a study of one man’s struggle between destiny and self-determination.

Our hero is Chinonso, a young poultry-farmer, whose life is derailed when he prevents a woman from jumping to her death off a highway bridge; later she tracks him down, and the two fall in love. It is a mismatched relationship from the start. The woman, Ndali, is wealthy and educated; Chinonso is neither of these things. Predictably Ndali’s parents and brother object to his presence in her life, and impulsively, on the advice of a friend, Chinonso sells up and moves abroad to study business. When we learn that Nonso has forwarded money to his friend in Cyprus to pay his fees and secure accommodation etc, we suspect a scam, and we are right. By the time he lands there (and finds that almost no-one understands him), his friend and the money have disappeared. Life goes from bad to worse…

It’s impossible not to like Nonso – but it’s impossible not to be irritated by him too: his lethargy, his hopelessness and helplessness, his habit of calling his girlfriends Mommy as a term of endearment. He is a man adrift in his own life. He invites disaster, and disaster responds. It’s very tedious.

What makes this depressing tale more interesting is that the entire book is an appeal to Chukwu, ‘creator of all’ in Igbo cosmology, and is narrated by Chinonso’s ‘chi’: in other words, his life force, his not-quite-guardian spirit, who can appeal to his god to forgive the wrong acts his host has committed (all done for the right reasons), but cannot, unfortunately, protect him from himself. Chukwu has ‘names and honorifics too numerous to count: Chukwu, Egbunu, Oseburuwa, Ebubedike…’ and the chi frequently begins new sections with one of these. It serves as a reminder that we are not reading a conventional narrative, but something mythic, something magical – and something very cumbersome in parts.

Linguistically, An Orchestra of Minorities is rich with Igbo phrases (untranslated) and Nigerian Pidgin injected into the English narrative. Challenging as this sounds, it’s definitely one of the novel’s strengths, and makes for an exhilarating read.

Reading this back, it feels unduly negative. I didn’t hate An Orchestra of Minorities (there’s damning with faint praise), and it lived vividly in my mind while I was reading it. But my overall impression is that is trying too hard to be clever. It’s smart, but not as smart as it thinks it is.

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