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Review: An Orchestra of Minorities

My sampling of the Booker Prize longlist continues with Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities. This one sounded so grandiose in concept that I was expecting either a major hit or a total miss, and sadly it did end up being a miss for me.

anorchestraofminoritiesIn the novel, Chinonso lives on a Nigerian poultry farm, alone with his beloved fowls. His immediate family is dead or estranged, so when an uncle suggests to him that a wife would give him some companionship, Chinonso doesn’t need much persuading. His first few attempts at love are rather naive and don’t pan out, but then he encounters a woman staring over the side of a bridge, apparently preparing to throw herself over and die. Neither of them are considering romance during this encounter, but a fledgling bond takes root all the same. Unfortunately, her family disapproves of him. As the lovers navigate their new relationship, they are thrown into increasingly difficult circumstances that teach them just how far they are willing (or not) to go for each other.

“All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilizations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed, and killed. With all these people, he’d come to share a common fate. They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.”

First off, An Orchestra of Minorities is a book that purports (in its jacket copy! in the text itself!) to be a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey. This claim was one of the biggest draws for me, so the fact that I didn’t think Obioma’s novel compared well to The Odyssey is probably my greatest disappointment here. This story is divided into three “incantations,” but it is not until the second of these that the connection to Homer’s epic begins to surface, and not until the third part (over 300 pages into the novel!) that Chinonso becomes a man stuck abroad, struggling to return to his home and the woman he loves. Plot-wise, the comparison ends there. Without the narration’s insistence on blatantly drawing a link between Chinonso and Odysseus, I suspect any narrative similarity would have gone largely unnoticed; but that’s just one reader’s opinion.

“And I must say, humbly- Chukwu- that I may have helped save my host’s life! For my words- What if she still loves you like Odysseus’s wife?- filled him with sudden hope.”

My love for The Odyssey is 50% appreciation for the tragedy, 50% appreciation for Odysseus’s craftiness in circumnavigating each of the obstacles placed in his path. Though Chinonso’s story certainly includes plenty of tragedy, he responds to his hardships with more crying and wailing than attempts to outsmart his enemies. Though Chinonso’s inability to fight back against his oppressors makes a powerful statement about how hard it must be to escape injustices like those that he faces in Nigeria (and in Cyprus, likened to “Africa in Europe”), it also leaves An Orchestra of Minorities feeling like an overly long and uneventful book in which things only happen to the main character. The format of Chinonso’s “chi” giving this story as testimony to the Igbo gods grounds the reader in Nigerian culture and harks back to the Greek’s singing muses, though the prose’s tendency to philosophize (which admittedly fits the myth comparison) also contributes to the sense of longwindedness.

“A word spoken stands as truth, firm, unless it is revealed to be a lie. Truth is a fixed, unchangeable state. It is that which resists any touching, any fiddling. It cannot be adorned, nor can it be garnished. It cannot be bent, rearranged, or moved about. […] Speak only what you know. If a fact is thin, do not feed it to make it fat. If a fact is rich, do not take from it to make it lowly. If a fact is short, do not stretch it to make it long. Truth resists the hand that creates it, so that it is not bound by the hand. It must exist in the state in which it was first created.”

Some readers will find these moralizing moments more endearing than I did, surely. To me they seemed tangential and gimmicky. I liked that the dialogue is written in dialect, but the frequent untranslated phrases of Igbo were a step too far for me. There are also many names mentioned, of places and deities and such, whose significance I had a hard time understanding because they are not always explained clearly for the layperson. In many ways I thought An Orchestra of Minorities a brilliant snapshot of a place and culture, but there are certainly details that went over my head, as well. I think someone more familiar with Igbo and Nigeria might best comprehend everything Obioma is doing with language and structure in this novel, but I also think the content and themes are aimed more at those who are unfamiliar, in a way that is meant to raise awareness of some of the gross racial injustice still evident in the world today. I’m not sure who the happy middle audience might be.

“I know what they did to you was not good. They disgraced you. But, you see, these things happen. This is Nigeria. This is Alaigbo. A poor man is a poor man. Onye ogbenye, he is not respected in the society.”

Another major barrier for me in this book is Chinonso himself. I do think a case can be made that the toxic masculinity on display in his character is an intentional, calculated writing choice meant to reflect the poor environment Chinonso has been raised in and the increase of struggles piled upon him. In the end, the narration’s failure to address this possibility even in the most subtle way made it hard to see this element in any sort of constructive light, and I found myself more annoyed with its inclusion than sympathetic- it could definitely have been handled better. So could a few other sensitive topics that come up in the story: prostitution, depression and suicidal thoughts, alcoholism… Chinonso meets a string of characters with problems of their own,  but never sees these issues as more than plot points in his own narrative. As a consequence, Chinonso is the only character that feels fully fleshed out. This bothered me with Ndali in particular, as she plays such a vital role; Chinonso meets her a real low point in her life, as a failed relationship leads her to that bridge- even when her relationship with Chinonso must appear to her to be headed down the same path, we see only Chinonso worrying that she’ll let another man touch her breasts.

But for all my complaints, I do need to say that I admire the concept behind this story. Though the execution fell entirely flat for me, I think this book was born from a strong and worthwhile idea (which I’ve mostly avoided talking about to spare you from any spoilers- it’s best not to know what’s coming). Because he is Nigerian, because the lessons life has taught Chinonso are not the same lessons people learn in other countries, he is vulnerable in particular ways. Because he is Nigerian, his word does not matter when someone accuses him. Because he is Nigerian, assumptions are made about him, lies are spread, and his life is less his own. Though this is not a new theme in literature, I think Obioma frames and addresses the issue in a new and interesting way. For a reader who enjoys Obioma’s writing, I think this story leave a much better impression. Personally, I’m left with a few aspects to appreciate from a reading experience that was just not at all enjoyable for me.

“Look at our economy; see our cities. No light. No jobs. No clean water. No security. No nothing. Everything, price of everything is double-double. Nothing is working. You go to school suppose take you for four years, you finish after six or seven, if God help you even. Then when you finish you find job so tey you will grow gray hair and even if you find it, you will work-work-workn and still not be paid.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I think this was my low point in this year’s Booker longlist- a 2-star rating is unusual for me in any circumstance, and particularly frustrating with a prize nominee. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who gets on with this one better than I did, but this is the title I least want to see advance, at the moment. If more of the longlist had been available to me, I’m not sure I would have finished this one. I don’t think I’ll be reading further from this author.

But to end on a brighter note, I’m really loving the next longlist title I’ve picked up- Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein!

Links to my previous Booker longlist reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, Lanny, and Night Boat to Tangier.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

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