'An Orchestra of Minorities': A slow spiral into darkness
That we are dying from the moment we are born is no secret, more like ancient wisdom to mark our limited chance here; on Earth and among our pairs. Then, it is probably what we make out of this chance that matters most.
How we live the time and the relations we built, the passions we ignite in us. Or the contrary, opinions divided on the subject. Especially among those like Chinonso, Chigozie Obiome's antihero: not many choices in a life in Africa (or Colombia, or India), not enough wealth to enjoy what the world has to offer for those on top of the food chain ... you wish for nothing but another day, you long for everything. And then an accident, a simple talk can change the river's course. What happens next is the content of An Orchestra of Minorities, a long trip in which nobody gets lost, except the protagonist.
Framed by the Igbo people's view of the universe and spiritual life, the second book by Obiome is a long allegation made by Chinonso's chi (a guardian spirit every person has). Incantations to attract god's pity or empathy for a young man, for his perils. Not an easy reading but one worth thinking about. Soon enough, this poor guy-owner of a small poultry farm-will start living things, moving into realms he can't really stay in. And that would be it.
Falling in love, tracing a new path to triumph or simply adjusting one's existence to a loved one, simple enterprises launched by simple men everyday, everywhere. What's important about them?
But the chi insists, chapter after chapter. His tone is circumspect, resembling the etiquette used by a steward or an airhost. He reflects, he dwells on the teachings from the past, crafted by the forefathers of his host, (Chinonso) in a region where once not long ago hopes where great and then a war almost exterminated a generation of West Africans. So the narrative of An Orchestra of Minorities gets some sediment with every episode the spirit guardian blows into your eyes, full of ancient knowledge and at the same time rooted in a small plot of the present, the poor depleted present of the world. So the story of a lonely man gets value after all.
This is a book of love too, of course. A young man awakening to the fascinating mysteries of sex (with a patient sex worker guiding his mind andorgans), of sharing (with a young woman, a street vendor) and of unrepentant love with Ndali, a beautiful and rich student, the daughter of a powerful chief in Nigeria. Of course, being the chi (and probably Obioma too) an old-style spirit, love and couples are of the hetero-patriarchal kind. Even when the spirit praises femineity; the more he does it, the more a reader will feel he is actually underlining a masculinity (if kind and humble).
A narrative told with no apparent alteration, An Orchestra of Minorities is full with Chinonso's memories of when he was not an orphan and, importantly, a goose he had as pet embodied all the love of his boyhood. They will come to haunt or to console him every now and then through the pages. In the same way they do in 'real life' feelings will as well show up inside his chest and then leave him to give place to others. Until love populates all and his daily life transforms into a light flowing from meals to work, from bed to the verandah of the paternal house he made his farm around.
Until the romance grows and moves forward. It becomes a family matter (her family). The neutral and elegant tone brings then episodes of hate and rejection. There is no usual melodrama and tears on end here. Just a concise narration in which Chinonso is humiliated inside a rich house by her family. A downer but quite normal, any reader can see: no way the humble man can marry the daughter of a powerful chief (anywhere). As normal is what will come next in Obioma's second book.
A way down for us all
So what we have here is a book telling us how a young man, alone in the world, can feel he is the problem. His poverty (and his lack of education) is the problem ... so in his innocence he tries to fix himself. Obioma lets us read his exposition on inadequacy, a vice of the poor, and inferiority. That's why Chinonso feels terrified of the prick Ndali's brother is in all his pride and apparent superiority. But he is more than just love and weakness.
That's why he makes one move that will seal his fate. He decides to sell everything, return to school (he is not that old) and become a man of worth in front of his girlfriend and her family. That's how, after one incantation, and more than a third of the book, you can feel a little lost. A young poor man sacrifices whatever he possesses for the love of a rich young lady. Obioma is Dicksensian that way: labours and perils of the low class good people...
Where are we going? To a small island in the Mediterranean sea, Cyprus. Pursuing the dream of a better life, like millions of us from the poor continents, Chinonso moves to Europe (to its periphery) only to discover a childhood friend had run a scam on him, one more of the actual schemes to take your little money from your hands without a fight. Human trafficking made by your own.
We used to think they only did it to white people on the Internet, the mugus, but look, see how they destroy their own people, their own brothers and sisters? (p. 248).
Then, more than incantations or prayers, the chi's overtures in each chapter of the book read more like diatribes. He's right, tough, on every account, on every claim he makes about life today (and the white man's ways). It's annoying, it should be. The neutral style of the book is tiresome, offers no shelter at any point. You will see a man crying or accepting fate like his ancestors did, sometimes, shipped to America as slaves or drowning in the sea every year for decades now.
Chinonso will start a new path in such a strange place, robbed and alone. By now the reader knows the line followed by An Orchestra of Minorities is in fact a spiral, going slightly down with each turn of events. He will find so many new ways and manners. He will be the living proof of the Orientalism proclaimed by Edward Said. And he will pay the price, as thousands do in the northern coasts of Africa, the border between Mexico and the US or the Balcan region.
Nevertheless, this is a book of hope ... and despairs. This is a novel about a simple sweet man daring to dream beyond his poor side of the world.
Migrating, struggling, finding a new life (a future). A reflection of that 99 per cent of humanity we are, wishing to reach, to settle. Inside a fragile boat, with an American visa in our bags or the illusion of leaving all this death and abjection behind. Obioma knows.
But we will not go to the bottom here with Chinonso, anyone with a heart can read a book listed for The Booker in 2019 that will take you on a slow spiral into a small inferno. Reading the Igbo way and realizing once again we deserve better, like a young humble man in Nigeria does. The chi knows, that's why he advocates on behalf of him from page one.