CBR12 BINGO: UnCannon
The description for the “UnCannon” category in CBR12 Bingo advises the reader to “Challenge yourself as much as you are able.” So while I could have picked up any book by a female author (of which there are many on my TBR list) to satisfy this category, I chose to read something by 34-year-old Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma. My husband read An Orchestra of Minorities last year and raved about it, so I decided now would be an excellent time to give it a try.
This is the type of novel that I’m both glad to have read and completely at a loss to decide how I feel about it. The beauty, and the difficulty, of challenging one’s self with a book that is far outside one’s frame of reference is that critiquing it becomes problematic. If I dislike something, is it because I can’t relate? If I like it, am I just trying to be broad minded? Undoubtedly I’m overthinking things; at any rate, I can say this book left me off-balance.
An Orchestra of Minorities follows the story of a young, Nigerian poultry farmer named Chinoso who falls in love with a wealthy and educated woman named Ndali after he prevents her from jumping from a bridge. The entire novel is related by Chinoso’s chi, which is a guardian spirit in the religion of the Igbo people of southern Nigeria. The chi tells the events of the novel to Chukwu, who is the supreme being or god in the Igbo religion. The chi seems to be explaining the action of the novel as a kind of defense; from the earliest pages, it’s apparent that Chinoso has done something that needs to be justified. My experiences with magical realism are limited, and I enjoyed this technique. The chi not only relates the incidents of Chinoso’s story, but also lends its wisdom from hundreds of years of guardianships. “I have seen this many times,” is a frequent refrain as the chi describes the emotions of his host to Chukwu.
Chinoso’s story follows an arc of hardship and suffering that is difficult for the reader to endure. After the bridge incident, Chinoso and Ndali fall in love, but she knows her family won’t approve of him due to his poverty and lack of education. When she introduces him to her parents and brother, they humiliate him; at a party at their estate, the brother puts Chinoso to work as a security guard. The humiliation he suffers at their hands is the first painful nail in his hand, but readers had better beware that worse is yet to come. Realizing that his only chance of winning over Ndali’s family is to become educated, he decides to sell everything he owns and move to Cyprus, where he is assured he can get a degree in just a few years. Once he arrives, however, he discovers that he’s been scammed and most of his money has been stolen.
And then things get bad.
In some ways Obioma follows the Thomas Hardy tradition of “there’s nothing so bad that can be heaped on a man that Fate can’t find room for a little more suffering.” Upon realizing he has been cheated, his chi describes Chinoso’s state of mind, “All he could do now, all there was to do now, was cry and wail. He had now joined many others . . . . 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.”
Yet while I have always interpreted Hardy’s world view as “There’s no damn point doing anything, because Fate will screw you every time,” Chinoso does make choices that affect the outcomes. Certainly bad luck plays a large role, but so do naiveté and rage. Certainly Chinoso is “acted upon” at many points in the novel, but he also acts. His violence is foreshadowed early in the novel through a dark tale about a gosling he raised as a child. His response to suffering is understandable, but not condonable.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and I suspect I’ll be pondering it for some times. So while I’m having a hard time defining how much I actually liked it, An Orchestra of Minorities gives me much to think about and explore.
I want to close not with Obioma’s words, but with an Igbo proverb that graces the front pages of the novel and perhaps explains the author’s reasons for writing it: “If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be the heroes in the stories of the hunt.”