An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

“If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be theheroes in the story of the hunt,” so goes the opening line of this fascinating andbeautiful novel—and indeed, we come to understand that the “minorities” in its titleare the prey, so often voiceless, who are now precariously recovering their ability tobear witness.

Set in Nigeria, An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma follows Nonso, a chickenfarmer in love with Ndali, a trainee pharmacist he meets after her long-term boyfriendmarries another woman.When Ndali’s wealthy parents take issue with Nonso’s lack of education, his somewhatrash response—as his family’s sole heir—is to sell the majority of his possessions toattend university study in Cyprus.When Nonso arrives in Cyprus, he finds he has fallen for a scam—there is no place at the university for him. So begins a quest for redress, as passers-by shout “slave”,demand to feel his hair, and mistake him for Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho. When anexpat nurse from Germany takes him under her wing, things briefly look up, until herjealous husband scuppers Nonso’s plan to go home.The book fights back by setting its action in the world of traditional Igbo culture, aworld most of its readers will know nothing about. Characters often speak for asentence or two in Igbo or pidgin, to remind the reader that if you’re an Igbo whosefamily hasn’t managed to find the money to send you to university, this is what it’s like:you hear words, perhaps important words, in the White man’s language, and you don’tunderstand them.

Most memorably, the narrator is the central character’s chi. What is a chi? We don’thave this concept in our spiritual universe. It is not a Christian soul or guardian angel,and it is not a Hindu atman. It is a little bit like all of these, but only partially. Really itis something different—and even after reading the book I have only a very partialunderstanding of what a chi is. It is another person, who is both part of you and notpart of you, who has been alive before you were born as part of other people, and willbe alive after you are dead. It gives a fascinating and mythic-style feel to the novel—and weaves a deep level of nuance into the book’s themes of determination and destiny.Overall, the prose in this work of magical realism was superb—it’s one I woulddefinitely read again, if not only to gain a firmer grasp on Igbo concepts and culture.

 

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