Of all the voices in the world

Book review: An Orchestra of Minorities, by Chigozie Obiama

The cries of all the wounded, oppressed, downtrodden, the enslaved, the wrongfully imprisoned, are raised as if in an orchestra. An orchestra of minorities. It is this identification with the powerless that pulses through the heart of Chigozie Obioma’s magnificent novel.

It is an Homeric struggle, but beneath the feet of the individual protagonist, roots sink into untold centuries of Africa. As deep into into its dark and red earth as its mythology reaches up to the celestial universe of the ancestors and the yet to be reborn.

Although it focuses on the odyssey of just one man, related by his chi, or guardian of his spirit, its depth and breadth is that of a symphony, the metaphors, allegories, and proverbs rising and falling throughout the narrative of Chinonso’s desire to win the approval of his lover’s family, and the journey he undertakes so he can return to marry her.

The concept of an interlinked circle of life threads through the pages. It is at the beginning of every chapter as Chinonso’s chi addresses the deities who may choose to influence the fate of man*, acting as advocate for their hosts. But to what extent Chinonso’s story is representative of the injustice experienced by multitudes, punches to the gut just over halfway through the tale:

“– All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilisations 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. –”

The Igbo mythology Obiama weaves is not only an inspired storytelling device to the point of being biblical, it roots it in the many, the enjoined, and the cyclical. There are many proverbs, spoken in the provenance of the wise, the philosophy of the patient:

“– The fathers say that a man does not stand on burning coals barefoot because his feet are wet–

One does not dance near the pit of venomous snakes because one’s obi is too small –”

Curious is the inability to see the spirit world of Turkish Cyprus; the astral planes are almost deserted, the spirits congregated in buildings, as opposed to the richly imagined, populous and nefarious worlds in Nigeria.

But this is not surprising. By coincidence, a reading of The Discovery of Heaven by the late and acclaimed Dutch author Harry Mulisch, preceded Obiama’s An Orchestra of Minorities. Both are written with a celestial perspective.

Mulisch European of course. From a Judeo-Christian mythology. An hierarchical view wherein exists an entity, or agency, which dictates the human course. In Obiama’s novel, agency lies within people, there is a much closer relationship with the spirits. In Igbo mythology, it seems, man is responsible for his own suffering, punishment is what comes from his own doing. Budhism would call it karmic. It is the natural law of action and reaction . Yet, a man may choose one course to get where he desires, yet find himself at its opposite. He may travel to a strange land to seek a degree in order to obtain the freedom to be with one he loves, and find himself in prison, wretched and utterly isolated.

So we sympathise with Chinonso. It could be anyone. There are circumstances not of our making. The future is a mist through which we try see clearly. But not everyone might be as stubborn, as prone to the violence of his emotions, as Chinonso. He has his flaws, which is what spurs his tragedy, and his chi’s wondrous undertaking to plead his case in the court of the heavens.

An Orchestra of Minorities will envelope you in its layers, and leave you stunned.

*The term ‘man’ refers to all genders

An Orchestra of Minorities was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, as was Obiama’s debut novel, The Fishermen, in 2015. Chigozie Obiama attended the Open Book Festival in Cape Town during September. You can find his novel at The Book Lounge on the corner of Roeland and Buitenkant Streets.

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