Thursday 27 June 2019

Sprawling tale of a wanderer making flawed moral choices

Fiction An Orchestra of Minorities

Chigozie Obioma

Little, Brown, hardback, 528 pages, €18

Expansive vision: Obioma's second novel is full of supple, flexing prose but can test the reader
Expansive vision: Obioma's second novel is full of supple, flexing prose but can test the reader
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

Claire Allfree

Halfway through Chigozie Obioma's second novel, his protagonist, Chinonso, witnesses a car accident while walking in northern Cyprus. Alone and penniless under a ferocious sun, the victim of a scam that has seen him sell his late father's poultry farm in return for a bogus place at a Cypriot university, Chinonso offers to give blood to the survivors. Then, against medical advice, he insists on giving some more. His generosity doesn't stem from a desire to help others, but from the fact he has come to prize his own life so little.

This ostentatious, unnecessarily destructive gesture is typical of Chinonso, a man "of instinct and passion" who throughout this teeming, sprawling novel often acts against his best interests or in excess of what is required. When we first meet him, he is throwing from a bridge two roosters he has only just bought at a market, in order to illustrate the stark reality of drowning to a woman who is threatening to jump. When he discovers a hawk stealing one of his chicks, he shoots it down - then crucifies it on a tree. When, after a terrible miscarriage of justice, he is offered compensation and the chance to start again, he silently rejects it all, to catastrophic ends.

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His tale of misfortune and flawed moral choices is narrated by his "chi", the guardian spirit who, in Igbo culture, resides in all men. At the beginning of the novel, the chi is begging a divine jury to show mercy to his "host". What follows is the chi's exhaustive testimony.

Obioma's Booker-shortlisted first novel, The Fishermen, was an elegiac state-of-the-nation drama that fused Greek tragedy with local folklore through the story of four brothers whose lives are shaped by a prophecy. Here, Obioma expands his canvas from the tragic to the epic, as Chinonso finds himself cast far away from himself and his homeland. Yet despite the jacket proclaiming that the novel offers a "twist" on 'The Odyssey', this is not really the case. Guileless Chinonso is no wily Odysseus, despite sharing his fate to wander.

In his self-sabotaging obsession with Ndali - the woman from the bridge who becomes his fiancée, and who has promised to wait for him in Nigeria - he more resembles an Othello, or perhaps an Oedipus, destined to encounter forces he cannot overcome. "The ill luck that has befallen a man has long been waiting for him," muses his chi, in one of many pontificating asides. "In the middle of some road, on a highway, or some field of battle, biding its time."

An Orchestra of Minorities is not one story, but many. On one level it's a portrait of modern Nigeria, alienated from itself by the legacy of colonialism and by the forces of modernity that have lured so many Nigerians from the countryside to the false promises of big new cities. On another, it's a story of poverty and displacement on a global scale, a hymn to that "orchestra of minorities" that have "been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilisations have been destroyed" and who gather in desperation at borders or languish back home.

Perhaps most of all, it's a lament for the vanishing Igbo belief system, for the "ancient thread of language" spoken by the spirits that is now "long lost to men".

Still, if Igbo culture is declining in Nigeria, its presence is felt robustly here. Obioma's supple, flexing prose thrums with the rhythms of interconnectedness, the prosaic coexisting with the numinous through a seemingly limitless stock of similes and metaphors: "It felt for a moment he had slipped from the hands of the present world like an oiled fish"; "after he had combed through the thick hide of night", and so on.

At the same time, the novel tests its reader. Chinonso's chi is a bit of a pub philosopher bore, who is always imparting ancient wisdom from the old fathers, and who keeps popping off out of his host's body to commune with other chis, when you wish he would get on with the story.

Chinonso is both simple and complicated, a man who calls every woman he falls for "mommy" (Oedipus again) because "I don't have a mother again so every good woman I meet is my mommy", yet who is volatile, foolish and blind to reason, and whose titanic-sized tragedy never excites in the reader a proportional level of emotional investment. In the end, though, you just about forgive these flaws, thanks to the redemptive humanity of Obioma's expansive vision, and the earthy, exquisite music of his prose.

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