Of Odyssean Saga and Romantic Tragedy – a review of Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities

AiW Guest Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè

‘You paid me evil for all I did for you…’
An Orchestra of Minorities

‘If the luminous intensity of Good did not give the night of Evil its blackness, Evil would lose its appeal.’ –Literature and Evil, Georges Bataille. 

It is heartwarming to know Chigozie Obioma still has more to offer after his critically acclaimed debut, The Fishermen. An Orchestra of Minorities is a metaphorically nuanced novel, sweeping in its ambition and style. 

The story of Chinonso, the protagonist, is narrated by his chi, his guiding spirit, in the court of Chukwu (God), asking to be pardoned a great evil he has committed. One is quick to draw parallels with the recent autobiographical metafiction of Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater, and the novel also affords a distinctive comparison with the Dutch classic, The Discovery of Heaven, a philosophical fiction by Harry Mulisch. Obioma’s, Emezi’s, and Mulisch’s novels are similar in terms of plot structure and stylistics; they are all narrated by a discarnate being to another in the extra-terrestrial; and they all have the theme of fate at their helms. 

An Orchestra of Minorities has an oral feel that is reinforced by occasional anecdotes, proverbs, mapping of the extra-terrestrial and calling the name of Chukwu or God, the addressee. These stylistic features serve as a bridge linking the ethereal with the physical landscape. It is another contemporary example of African magical realism that could be categorised with Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Kojo Laing’s Women of the Aeroplane, as enunciated by Ato Quayson: ‘all the African magical realist texts draw on the polysemy of oral discourse to establish the essential porousness of what might be taken as reality.’  

The novel’s setting in Umuahia, eastern Nigeria, and not more urban, cosmopolitan Lagos, is also remarkable. The city is central to the Igbo civilisation, where we also encounter contemporary Igbo folk heroes like Oliver De Coque and Usuofia. Through this setting, the novel explores a space and diversity that is often ignored in Nigerian contemporary fiction.

An Orchestra of Minorities is a violent love story, as violent as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, in which evil is artistically elevated as the ultimate expression of the anguish of love and passion. In An Orchestra of Minorities, as in Wuthering Heights, evil is not entirely the antipodal of good; it is a question of surrounding motive regarding passion. But then, what is really evil if it is fuelled by passion, at what point does someone become inspired by it, and what is its price? Georges Bataille, in his critical analysis of Wuthering Heights, answers the first question: 

The basis of sexual effusion is the negation of the isolation of the ego which only experiences ecstasy by exceeding itself, by surpassing itself in the embrace in which the being loses its solitude. Whether it is a matter of pure of eroticism (love-passion) or of the bodily sensuality, the intensity increases to the point where destruction, the death of the being, becomes apparent. 

It is, Bataille argues, ultimately sexual resentment or rejection conjoined with terror that culminates in romantic tragedy and subsequently evil. 

This, too, is the crux of An Orchestra of Minorities. The novel raises a question about the morality surrounding evil, passion, predestination and reincarnation using the Igbo cosmological belief system. The book is doubly an odyssean saga and romantic tragedy. As Chinonso’s chi stands in Chukwu’s court, to make God, and the reader, understand the motive behind the evil he has committed, he unfolds his story from the very beginning. Chinonso is a naïf whose life is suspended in the limbo of grief before he meets a woman who changes his fortune. He first discovers the feverishness of intimacy, according to his chi, at the hands of a sex worker:

She knelt on the floor and held his penis with one hand and clutched his buttocks with the other. He squirmed and trembled from the sensation.

She sucked with plopping sounds, forcefully, while he screamed, gnashed his teeth and uttered meaningless words.

He made love to her with an exuberance that fevered his soul and poured himself into the act. But once he slumped beside her, she pushed away his arm and rose.

The sensation overpowers him such that he fumbles a wish to possess her. This is a symptom of the mind, an innate feeling, the id wanting to possess emotion and body, leading to the evil known as jealousy. ‘So, it is clear that sexual jealousy is at least linked to the belief in proprietary rights over [a] body,’ writes literary critic and psychiatrist, Femi Oyebode.

Chinonso’s passion is lit by another casual sexual encounter with a street hawker that lasts for several weeks until she abruptly disappears, which leaves him forlorn and frustrated. Unbeknown to Chinonso, these sexual encounters have awakened in him a quiet force that leaves a vacuum once they end. He soon becomes embroiled in another promising relationship with Ndali, a woman he dissuaded from committing suicide – perhaps what binds them together is that both are nursing grief when they meet. He feels lucky to be in a relationship with her because of her refinement and high social status, and she on the other hand feels she owes him her life. But Ndali’s family reject the union and humiliate him because he is less educated, a ‘shepherd of birds’ as he calls himself. 

To be deemed good enough for them, and for Ndali, he buys a dream of greener pastures, ironically an arid land in Cyprus. He sells everything he has, his landed property he inherited from his father, his vehicle, and his poultry business, in other words, his life to which Ndali tentatively says ‘…Nonso, you have destroyed yourself because of me!’ foreshadowing his journey. It appears then that whatever he does from that point, ‘…Ndali led him further and further into transgression.’ 

He returns broken, humiliated, with nothing but a wish that life had remained static for the people he left behind as his life had when he was in prison in Cyprus. His only mission thus becomes to return to Ndali, his Penelope. But his is a failed odyssey. His ‘eviling’, to borrow the word of Ben Okri, then fully crystallises that he is inflamed by an infernal fury and terror beyond any redemption: 

Chukwu, at this point, I fear again that I must say that after Jamike had come, prayed for him, cried for him and embraced him, the old rage, the terror, the complex feeling that swallowed all things, came upon him again. He did not know what it was, but it seized him and plunged him into the abyss from which he’d been dragged out. It was, Egbunu, a single memory that did it: that one strike of a match that sets an entire building on fire. It was the recollection of the day he first slept with her and the day she had knelt on the ground of the yard and sucked at his manhood until he toppled over the bench. How they had both laughed and talked about how the fowls had watched them. (italics mine).

Chinonso’s story explains what happens when someone is inspired by evil, and explores what is its price. Chinonso is a man of passion whose entire life is a predestined paradox. He is crude mannered, barely literate, perpetually lost in the innocence of childhood – but it is apparent he is as much a victim of evil as a perpetrator. This inspires sympathy in his chi and the reader. 

Chinonso has always been violent – anything he loves that cannot be his must not be others’. He is a man that can orchestrate a gory murder in his mind and even pee in his friend’s drink out of spite. Yet, at the height of his grief, there is always a sacrifice that induces respite or a new beginning. After the death of his mother, he comes into possession of a gosling, a bird he comes to love with all passion. Also, he unconsciously sacrifices two roosters to a river after which comes Ndali. Maybe there might be another respite or another beginning after he’s lost everything. This is the reincarnation of Chinonso.

Chinonso is thus as remarkable a romantic tragic figure as Bronte’s Heathcliff, in whose character the complex equation of evil and good is couched. To try to disentangle good and evil using the character of Chinonso will become a moral crisis for any reader. That we do not hear Chukwu’s voice even once, criticises God as complacent in the affairs of men. When Chinonso conceives the ultimate evil, his conscience – supposedly the voice of God – is ‘silent’. The book, then, asks the reader to be a judge of human nature. 

Obioma has taken heed of most of the criticisms levelled against him for pandering to the West in his previous novel. But there is another oversight in his second book. The chi narrator refers to the sexual violence his host experienced in prison as ‘evil’ and there are other places in which he is coy about homosexuality. Having a chi narrator whose memory transcends centuries would have been a chance to comment on the presence or narrate an event about homosexuality in precolonial Igbo culture (as Jennifer Makumbi offhandedly did for homosexuality in Uganda in her epic masterpiece, Kintu). Otherwise, this reads as if suggesting that homosexuality is a colonial import. Or maybe we oughtn’t burden the novelist with the task of reclaiming Africa’s history through fiction.

Chigozie Obioma (born 1986) is a Nigerian writer and assistant professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, US. His debut novel, The Fishermen, was published to critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015. And, again, his second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is presently on the longlist of the same award – an enjoyable read that inspires empathy.

Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and Africa in Words. He enjoys travelling and cooking. His chapbook of travels across Africa, Transacting Stories: Markets, People and Places was recently published by Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers Organisation, part of their exhibition, ‘A Volatile Negotiation Between the Past and Present’ at the 2019 AfriCologne Festival, Germany. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.

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