Before Chigozie Obioma’s ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ gets a follow up-Olukorede S. Yishau
The secret is emerging slowly.
Two-time Booker Prize finalist and now Booker Prize judge, Chigozie Obioma, is done with a novel set in 1960 Nigeria. While the details of the new work are still hush-hush, his current novel, ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’, is, getting translated into more languages, among other engagements.
From the opening paragraph of this daring sophomore effort, there are signs that the narrator is garrulous. It turns out the story is spilling from the mouth of an ‘it’, the Igbo guardian spirit known as chi, which the late Chinua Achebe made popular. The chi is giving testimony before God about his host named Nonso in a beautiful and figurative language.
The talkative being screams: “Anungharingaobialili, when a man encounters something that reminds him of an unpleasant event in his past, he pauses at the door of the new experience, carefully considering whether or not to enter it.
“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.” After initial ramblings, the chi eventually gets into the story of Nonso’s calamitous life, and the role of Ndali— who he calls Mommy— in his misadventure. From the frantic way the chi is talking, we have a feeling Nonso has done something terrible, but the chi is so ‘secretive’ that it is only at the dashing end of the book that the secret is let out in a shocking yet great mode.
The chi begins the story in Umuahia, the Abia State capital and later flies to Lagos, Abuja, and Cyprus following Nonso, a 24-year-old lonely orphan.
Ndali, the chi tells us, is tired of disappointments and feels jumping into a river is the best way to end her woes. Nonso sees her trying to jump off the bridge and persuades her against it. He flings two of his prized fowls into the water to show Ndali how painful her decision is. After some hassles, she quashes her decision and returns home. Nonso, too, returns home. Months later, their paths cross again. Ndali initiates a friendship with this man she feels saved her life. The friendship evolves into a relationship and poor Nonso unveils his plan of marrying Ndali, the daughter of a rich man.
The story’s tempo reaches some state of frenzy at this stage with Ndali’s stupendously rich father humiliating the illiterate poultry farmer aspiring to be his son-in-law. Ndali’s brother, Chuka, assigns himself the task of cutting Nonso to size. The series of humiliations mark a turning point in the life of Nonso who after discussing with a friend, Elochukwu, feels that getting a higher education can get Ndali’s family rooting for him.
Obioma grabs the opportunity offered by Nonso’s decision to go for higher education to treat a major malaise in Nigeria’s education system: Perpetual strike in universities. Because of this challenge, he believes it may take him a longer period to start and complete a degree programme. He sells his valuables and heads for Cyprus for tertiary education. Cyprus welcomes him with a rude shock.
His later acquaintanceship of an expatriate nurse from Germany makes him one of the minorities in faraway land and his cries for help are unheeded. Obioma’s second novel is a story of the power of love, a story of sacrifice, onw of the eternal struggle between fate and willpower, a story of betrayal and one of revenge. This tragicomedy is far more go-getting than Obioma’s critically acclaimed debut ‘The Fishermen’.
Using an all-seeing spirit as the narrator gives the author the opening to tell it all and thus overcome the limitation of first-person narration. Obioma leverages on the omniscient power of the chi (which can dwell in the spiritual and physical realms), to give parts of the book the magical realism touch. For instance, the chi-narrator’s ability to recall even the past of characters other than his host is used to exhume the past of Ejinkeonye, who fought in the Biafran War, and through him, the memories of the war subtly disturb the pages of the book.
The chi also takes leave of the host’s body from time to time to play the detective and unravel mysteries. It is interesting seeing the chi put thoughts in the host’s mind to influence his engagements. There are so many magical moments in this book: Two chis having a chit-chat; a ghost crying in a bus pleading against a marriage on account of the fact that the suitor is a murderer; the chi is fascinated by the workings of an aircraft after taking leave of its host to wander thousands of feet above sea level.
This Booker Prize-shortlisted 516-page novel contains stunning similes and metaphors. Samples: “Like insects around a glob of sugarcane” and “like a thing with wheels into the future”. There are also thought-provoking Igbo proverbs, which imbues the book with a ‘Things Fall Apart’ aura.
There is a subtle political sub-theme in the book captured in these words: “But he thought even more that these people were happy because they had been lifted from places where they were suffering into this new country. The plane had lifted out of the land of lack, of man-pass-man, the land in which a man’s greatest enemies are members of his household; a land of kidnappers, of ritual killers, of policemen who bully those they encounter on the road and shoot those who don’t bribe them, of leaders who treat those they lead with contempt and rob them of their commonwealth, of frequent riots and crisis, of long strikes, of petrol shortages, of joblessness, of clogged gutters, of potholed roads…and of constant power outages.”
Nigeria, the country in focus, remains in the throes of kidnapping, banditry, favouritism, and epileptic power supply.
Obioma delivers a contemporary Nigerian tragedy using Igbo cosmology and through it, he brings alive Umuahia, Abuja and Cyprus in vivid colours. He uses language with artistic grace that makes a reader derive guilty pleasure in reading Nonso’s harrowing plights. He is a maximalist with description and seemingly derives pleasure in telling haunting tales.
What will his 1960 Nigeria novel be like? The waiting game will soon be over.
Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘Vaults of Secrets’ and ‘In The Name of Our Father’