Book review: Orchestra of Minorities

Nigerian writer Chigozie Obiama has set himself out as one of the new and young literary voices out of the African continent. Following the lead of such writers as Achebe and Ben Okri, he has won international acclaim and publicity on a large scale.

His first novel from 2015 The Fishermen won several awards internationally. It was short listed for the booker prize and was voted book of the year by among others the Financial Times and the Observer. In that respect his success is similar to such shocking debutants as Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga. This year his long awaited follow up came out, an Orchestra of Minorities. It has already been translated to some 30 languages including Norwegian.

His first novel The Fishermen clearly conveyed classic traditional themes among Africanist writers, such as the preoccupation with the colonial past, the political turmoil in the post-colonial, the rural reality versus the harsh existence in urban settings, traditional mindsets and tribal and ethnic identities. There was a strong historical focus in the search for the identity, values and conflict lines of today´s Nigeria.

In Obiama´s second novel the tone and setting is more innovative and complex. The tone is at times comic and ironic, and the narrative takes place both in rural Nigeria and in Cyprus. This oscillation adds to a prevailing up rooting effect. We follow Nonso who gets in a lot of trouble in Cyprus. Why? He wanted to get engaged to Ndali, who was from a wealthy family. She is working as a trainee in a pharmaceutical company. Nonso, however, is from the countryside and works with chicken farming. Meeting the disapproval of Ndali´s parents he seeks to rectify his lack of education by raising money and enrolling on a university in Cyprus. However, he soon founds out that he has been swindled by a fake company and does not have any University enrolment.

Nonso is stranded in Cyprus and finds that the environment is just as destitute as Africa. In this chaotic situation, Obiama introduces a guardian spirit that recounts the events making up Nonso´s situation. This guardian spirit has stories of its own to tell, and is a link to the magic and superstition of tribal oral traditions. This mélange is also reminiscent of Ben Okri´s novels, although the novel is not equally infused with magic and supernaturalness.

The mishaps and misfortunes of Nonso seem to encapsulate some relevant themes of modern day Africa: the disillusion with emigration, socio-economic obstacles and the ever present traditions that seem to offer guidance and protection. The novel is well written and sheds a humorous light on broader regional issues.

- Kristi Angvik