What Would You Do if You Were God? : A review of An Orchestra of Minorities – Jasper Ugbaa

Book: An Orchestra of Minorities

Publisher: Parresia Publishers

Year: 2019

In what can be classified as one of the most experimental feats in contemporary Nigerian literature, Chigozie Obioma’s sophomore effort ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ joins the ranks of Akwaeke Emezi’s ‘Freshwater’ and Igoni Barrett’s ‘Blackass’ in giving us something more than the realism we are accustomed to expect from Nigerian fiction. Not since Ben Okri’s Booker Prize winning 1991 novel, The Famished Road, have books like this received such acclaim.

While a black Nigerian man turns into a white man overnight save his buttocks in Barrett’s Blackass, plunging us into fantastic magical realism in Lagos, both Obioma and Emezi’s books deal with Igbo cosmology and ontology and have non-human narrators telling stories which before now had been relegated to traditional experiences abandoned by most people in exchange for modern religions. Though we cannot say we are hearing of the divine Chukwu or of an Ogbanje for the first time, there is a deliberate centering of these experiences in our modern world with contemporary characters instead of treating them like relics of our precolonial history.

In Obioma’s Orchestra of Minorities, which has a better title than the one he had initially chosen, an ordinary young man stops his van of birds after driving past a young woman about to fling herself over a bridge one evening. After saving her life, he flings one of his precious lifestock which he had just purchased over the bridge in her place, to show her what would have happened to her body. It can be deduced that this sacrifice which surprises even his Chi, his guardian spirit who is narrating the novel, is a ritualistic act that foreshadows the novel’s tragic end. The arc of the romance between Chinonso and Ndali has been classified by reviewers as Shakespearean in nature, however it is reminiscent of the Nollywood romance dramas of the late nighties to mid-noughties which explored the challenges of romance across class, pairing on-screen couples like Genevieve Nnaji and Emeka Ike who battle impossible odds to save their love.

This is not to say that the romance is cliché, in fact it is specific, tender and uplifting. Chinonso is an illiterate (by modern standards, since he does not have tertiary education and is not fluent in English language) who runs a poultry business and this gives room for humor, not that Ndali ever makes fun of him for it. She, with all her education and social standing loves him just as he is, even falls in love with the messy business of poultry farming. In fact when his Chi takes a brief leave of his body on their first meeting to follow her after she departs from him, her Chi rises from her body in a car ‘…clothed in bronze skin’ to assure it,

                        ‘My host Ndali has erected a figurine in the shrine of her heart. Her

                        Intentions are as pure as the waters of the seven Rivers of Osimiri

                        and her desire is as true as the clean salt beneath the waters of

                        Iyi-Ocha.”

 The moments of romance between them are unpredictable, raw and heartfelt, even ordinary and therefore more effective. When Ndali queries him for addressing her as ‘Mommy’, he explains,

                        ‘I don’t have a mother again, so every good woman is my mommy’

The novel is de-colonial, in that it re-imagines its character’s life away from any western God or aspiration. Some transliterations, the several anecdotes and invocations by the Chi trump previous criticisms accusing Obioma of writing for the white gaze. For such an ambitious plot, Obioma has chosen an ordinary man with little western education and little use for it, prospering in his solitude, until he falls in love with Ndali and must secure education in Europe to earn her parents’ respect. Man can sit in large machines and fly, vehicles can transport humans at speeds that would stun the old fathers and the people may abandon the old ways for new religions or not having a religion at all but an Igbo man still has his chi, his guardian spirit, whether he is aware of it or not.

This Chi guides us through the plot with wisdom gleaned from its many returns to this world. After an eternity of guiding several human hosts, it has observed them and developed its own philosophies about them, particularly noticing their capacity for astonishing acts of wonder that often defy logic or expectation, especially with the human lack of prescience which it laments throughout the novel. The Chi will share insight into the state of human being often ending a long bout of exposition with an assurance for the reader ‘I’ve seen it before.’ Through the Chi’s eyes the spirit world is revealed to us, thriving inspite of contemporary times. There are spirits in buses, airplanes and of course the market place. Spirits did not die because the white man came to Africa. These scenes are fantastic and Obioma uses this spirit world he evokes meticulously, ever faithful to Igbo ontology, to hint at some mysterious happenings around us. The sex scenes are well written, even though at times comically observed by the empathetic Chi. Relying on the firm grasp on the Chi’s philosophical voice it is clear that Chigozie Obioma, shortlisted again for the Bookers Prize with this book, knows precisely what he is doing.

The flow of the book ebbs towards the middle. While this reader’s attention has been sustained through the mundane aspects of the character’s life, focus is lost when the Chi starts narrating a crucial part of the novel, the irreversible and unfortunate decisions made by the protagonist. I am not entirely sure why. Is it because in real life we don’t dwell much on the details of a tragedy? The novel could have been stronger without those expatiations running into several pages. In fact the plot starts picking up when we find hints of what was left out, to be revealed in the letter he would write to Ndali and glossed over by his Chi. Had it been shorter in size, it would have been an even more powerful book.

Some reviewers have wondered if Chigozie Obioma’s novel was a long-winding justification for the acts of grave misogyny that occur in it. Perhaps the character’s Chi understands the situation, and this is why Obioma forces the reader into the seat of ‘You’, the Chukwu, the God, the divine entity the Chi tries to placate throughout the novel with several names (which interestingly parallel the several names for God in the Abrahamic religions the larger percentage of Nigerians replaced their traditional beliefs for) and proverbs and supplications. Obioma forces us to answer the question, what would you do if you were in this position of supreme power? What decision would you take over this man if you were God?

While Western readers have accused the book of attempting to justify misogyny and conjuring an archetypal fantasy female in Ndali, it has been accused locally of misrepresenting some spiritual aspects of Igbo culture. The Nigerian release sparked up conversations in the country, challenging Obioma’s concept of ‘Chi’ as presented in the book. It is worthy of note that he insists in the author’s note at the end of the book that his novel is not a definitive text on Igbo cosmology or African/Afro religions.  He went ahead to cite materials he had used for research to augment field research independently conducted by his father in their hometown of Nkpa in Abia State, Nigeria.

Jasper Ugbaa loves music and literature from Africa. He hopes to write a book someday. He is on Instagram and twitter as @JasperUgbaa ‘

More Stories
“Mama Drama” Release Movie Teaser