Things Visible and Invisible
Book review by Jude Joseph Lovell
Imagine finally meeting the love of your life—realizing you have found what only happens once in a lifetime—only to become separated by a time and distance. The question becomes: How far would you go to get the one you love back?
It’s a well-worn theme, now recast in An Orchestra of Minorities, a dense but striking new novel set in Africa and the Mediterranean by the critically acclaimed Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma.
Obioma, now a professor of creative writing in the United States, initially gained attention with his widely praised debut, The Fishermen (2015). That novel tells the story of four brothers from Nigeria who grow into irredeemable conflict with one another after a village madman prophesies doom for one of them. With its house-divided theme, the novel served as an allegory for the Nigeria of the 1990s that formed this gifted writer. Upon its publication, Obioma drew immediate comparisons to the legendary Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, of Things Fall Apart fame.
An Orchestra of Minorities is a more ambitious work than The Fisherman. One of the most rewarding elements of this sprawling novel is the way Obioma weaves in Igbo spirituality, a vibrant tapestry of myths and ancient traditions that is likely unfamiliar to most American readers.
The story concerns Chinoso, a poor poultry farmer who falls in love with a woman named Ndali after a chance meeting on a bridge, where he prevents her from committing suicide. The relationship ripens into romance, but it becomes readily apparent that Ndali’s wealthy family stands in the way of marriage because of Chinoso’s lowly social status. This is confirmed at a disastrous party where Ndali attempts to introduce Chinoso as her boyfriend. Her father humiliates him, and her protective brother labels him a “church rat.”
Ravaged by this unjust treatment, but unable to give up on his love, Chinoso encounters an old schoolmate who presents a possible solution: he has connections at a university in Cyprus and offers to make arrangements there for Chinoso to become a candidate for a degree in business, so that he might return as an educated man to claim Ndali’s hand. Desperate, the naive and heartsick Chinoso turns over his entire life’s savings to this friend.
Chinoso arrives in Cyprus and discovers much too late that he has been duped. Penniless, the young man experiences a series of unlucky encounters that leave him destitute and make returning to Ndali all but impossible.
Chigozie Obioma’s sentences frequently sing with originality and seem to bear wisdom from well beyond his thirty-three years. “Silence is often a fortress into which a broken man retreats,” he observes about his protagonist’s brooding. Later, as Chinoso languishes, “the enamels of his life peeling away from him and withering into flecks at his feet.” The novelist makes us feel the depths of his character’s despair and describes with almost too much gritty earthiness the numerous mental and physical trials Chinoso endures as the years pass.
Where this dark and ultimately tragic tale reveals deep wells of beauty is in the way it is told. Obioma has chosen to narrate the story through the perspective of Chinoso’s “chi”—an Igbo term meaning a guardian spirit. As the novel opens, the reader witnesses this entity’s testimony to its “host’s” earthly activities in a place called Eluigwe, “the land of eternal, luminous light,” before Chukwu, the supreme deity of the Igbo religion. The guardian is appealing for clemency, explaining all that has befallen Chinoso and why the poor man acted in the way he did.
Speaking with eloquence, the chi peppers its tale with anecdotes from more than seven hundred years residing in other hosts, and shares bits of timeless wisdom from the “august fathers” and the “ndiichie-nne,” or the “great mothers.” Thus, as the novel unfolds and the reader learns of young Chinoso’s misfortunes, we also experience the unseen realm of the spirit.
In spite of its wisdom and transcendent experience, the chi admits more than once in the telling that it still does not “fully understand” the human heart. “A man rests at night with the vaults of his mind full of plans and ideas for tomorrow, but nothing in those plans might be fulfilled,” it observes, not without sadness.
An Orchestra of Minorities is to a certain degree a demanding read. But for readers with an appetite for other traditions and ways of life, this is a rich and illuminating novel, composed with intelligence and muscle.
Photo credits by Nairaland Forum and the Raven Book Store
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.