419 by Will Ferguson
In present day Alberta, a car plummets over the edge of a ravine, killing the elderly driver. There are two sets of tyre marks on the road above, and at first the police suspect the dead man was being chased. But the marks belong to the same car: it had taken him two tries to get the angle right to miss the guard rails in order to drive off the road.
His family never suspected a thing. Never realised how troubled the retired high school teacher was, never realised he had sent all his and his wife’s money to someone in Nigeria, even taking out a second mortgage against the house already long paid for, and is well over a hundred thousand dollars in debt. Never realised that he felt like he was being watched, that he was being threatened, that he had increased his life insurance policy before killing himself, putting his daughter Laura down as the sole beneficiary.
But the police discover it all, and ask the family: Do you know anyone from Nigeria? Have you ever heard of 419?
Laura takes her father’s death particularly hard. A reclusive copy editor who works from home, she is distracted by all the grammatical and spelling errors in the emails her father received, until she notices that there is a pattern – like the authors she edits, the writers of the emails have a style, and it might be possible to find the person behind her father’s death through the way they write. It’s not about the money, she tells herself: it’s about losing her father, a man who had been trying to reach out to her but to whom she had not given her time. A man she misses deeply.
In Nigeria, a lone woman walks through the desert with a jerry can of water balanced on her head. Pregnant, she has long ago traded her jewellery for food and is reduced to scavenging at campsites and chewing on nuts. Finally reaching the city of Zaria, the furthest she’s ever been in her life. But even here, there are people who recognise the ritual tribal scars on her face that can tell a person exactly which village she is from; even Zaria is not far enough away. And she she keeps walking, heading to the next city.
And in the west, in the Niger Delta, European oil companies strike deals with the government to drill for oil, destroying the mangrove swamps, poisoning the water, killing the fish that are the livelihood of the Igbo people who live there. Nnamdi is a boy when the Dutch first come and a teenager when they give him, and many other boys, jobs in an attempt to pacify the tribe and give them a vested interest in protecting the pipelines that snake through their land. What Nnamdi learns on the refinery island will save his life several times, and take him far from home.
All three – Laura, the unnamed woman, and Nnamdi – are on a trajectory that will bring them together in unexpected ways.
This is an epic story and demonstrates Ferguson’s ability to weave seemingly disparate plot lines and characters together. It also shows the impressive depth of his research, which I had noticed from reading his earlier novel, Spanish Fly. In the latter book – about three con artists during the Depression in the United States – you could tell that Ferguson’s research and fascination with the cons was stronger than his storytelling, and his characters suffered for it. With 419, though, there was a much better balance between the scope of his research – which is truly extensive – and the storytelling. As a story, I really enjoyed this. As insight into life in Nigeria and the situation between the locals and the oil companies, it’s enlightening and terrifying and disheartening. Where it falters a bit is with Laura and her side of the story, especially towards the end. I would say that Ferguson wrote the Nigerian side of the story, and the Nigerian characters, more believable, honest and human than he did Laura. Which is curious, when you think about it.
It begins in an unnamed city in Canada which I figure is either Calgary or some more northern city – the Rockies are mentioned, and Laura absently tracks the ups and downs of the oil industry by watching the cranes move on the horizon: when they’re still, it’s a bad day. (Alberta is home to the infamous Tar Sands.) I’m always curious about why authors decide to leave a city unnamed like that. The bulk of the novel is set in Nigeria and covers pretty much the entire country – it was easy enough to picture the individual settings and get an idea of how close they are, as well as the very diverse landscape, based on how things are described, but I would still have loved a map. I love maps, and I find them useful in creating a more three-dimensional picture in my imagination.
If you’re unfamiliar with what “419″ is, it is an email scam that nets millions of dollars for Nigeria and is one of their biggest industries, after oil. It begins with an email, and it’s a fair bet that by now, anyone who has at least one email address would have received at least one of these messages. I hadn’t had one in a really long time – well I get spam mail on gmail (never Hotmail) but I never open them; most of those are about winning lots of pounds from Britain for something-or-other (or messages from Canadian banks telling me there’s a problem with my account – right, and I don’t even have accounts with those banks!). Incidentally, we also get one via phone here, someone Indian asking us about the Microsoft bug reported on our computer – a-ha, yeah, nice try. You ask yourself, how can these possibly work? They’re so blatantly obvious, so incredibly stupid. But they do. Not with you or me, but with other people. In the case of Ferguson’s novel, the 419 scam that lured in Laura’s dad – a lovely, kind-hearted man whose two children didn’t have much time to give him anymore – it was a plea for his help in aiding a young woman. And of course, the sender had done their research, having found out lots of information about him via the woodworking forum he frequented, which enabled the sender to make his message personal, intimate even – clearly, they had the right person.
Ironically, the day I wrote this review I received a private message through Goodreads – the user was deleted before I could report it so they’re very quick on catching them, but just goes to show that they really do find people everywhere, on forums etc. I thought, before I deleted it, I’d include it here as a sample message, very typical of 419:
I am Barr. Richard Spencer residing in Accra-Ghana,a personal attorney to late Mr.Robert ,a nationality of your country who died in tragic motor accident by running into a stationery Trailer without warning sign on December 26 , 2006.
I have contacted you to assist in repatriating his fund valued at USD$45,200,000.00 left behind by my late client before it gets confiscated or declared unserviceable by the Security Finance Firm where this huge amount were deposited.
Reply to my private email address for more details: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please I will advise you to create a new email address at YAHOO,HOTMAIL OR GMAIL and contact me back because this site is rejecting the the full details of what I wanted to send you.
I honestly couldn’t have made that up (to say the least, I’m incapable of writing something with that many errors!), but it’s interesting to note it’s talking about Ghana – 419 seems to have spread. The messages are always like that: help us liquidate someone’s money before the government seizes it, all you have to do is hold it in your account, and you’ll get a commission. But there is no money, and that’s not how it works. In Nigeria, it’s a huge underground business, employing thousands. As one of the RCMP officers explains to Laura and her family, it’s named after “the section in the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with obtaining money or goods under false pretenses.” [p.111] I did notice, though, that this one wasn’t half as well-targeted as the one that nets Laura’s dad. It doesn’t even use my name!
In the story, Laura’s blustering older brother Warren is the character created as a foil, the person added to the story to show just how easily people can fall for things. In fact, the whole conversation with the RCMP when they’re shown the emails, the forged documents, and had it all explained to them, is pure exposition.
“Your father signed a document granting power of attorney to the law office of Bello & Usman in Lagos.”
“So why aren’t you contacting them?” asked Warren.
“Because they don’t exist,” said Laura. “Jesus Christ, Warren, what part of this don’t you understand?”
“Language,” said their mother, roused from her indifference.
“What if someone took them up on their offer?” Laura asked. “Flew to Lagos and confronted them face to face?”
Detective Saul looked at her. “People have tried that. They’ve gone over there and started poking about in the city’s underbelly.
“Like I said, they usually end up floating in Lagos Lagoon.”
“But what if – what if you made them come to you, pretended to be an investor, say? Turned the tables.”
“That’s a dangerous game. You’d be on their turf.”
“But couldn’t you meet them on neutral ground? An embassy or something.”
“Odds are, even if you made it out alive, you wouldn’t get your money back,” said Rhodes.
“What if,” Laura said, “it wasn’t about the money?” [p.139]
Learning about 419 and its effect on the victims – whom the Nigerians see as merely greedy and so not people to feel sorry for – was naturally fascinating. As was learning about the state of Nigeria’s oil industry, which is plain frightening. I read this book for a book club and one of the other readers brought along a slideshow of images from the Niger Delta, of the water slick with spilled oil, the natural gas flares, burning off the gas that would normally be collected. As Ferguson describes in the novel, these fires create acid rain and the people’s skin burns. Their food source is gone, and they have resorted to sabotage and guerilla warfare: opening up the pipes to siphon off the oil to sell on the black market; kidnapping foreign (white) workers and holding them to ransom; terrorising their own people on the rivers and in villages. When their own people aren’t attacking them, the government sends in soldiers to kill them, burn their villages, take anything left. It’s amazing the Igbo have survived at all.
One of the boys was wavering on his feet. His eyes were milky and unfocused. It reminded Nnamdi of the glassy gaze of the Egbesu boys, but without the bravado or the gin.
“The hardest part is protecting your line from other boys. We have to stand guard twenty-four hours. Take turns, work it in shifts. But dey fumes is always leaking, from the hose or from the valve. So you inhale a lot of it. Gives you headaches.”
Nnamdi looked at his sickly friends, grown wan and thin. “You have to stop,” he said. “The gas will make you ill. It will poison you.”
“It already has, Nnamdi.” And then, in Ijaw: “It was our bad fortune, wasn’t it, Nnamdi? To sit on top of wealth that others wanted. Why do you think the gods punished us like that? Cursed us with oil. Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you suppose the oil is tainted by the souls of the Igbo and others that we captured? Do you suppose it’s the blood of those, come back to haunt us?”
“If that was the case, my friend, the oil would make the oyibos [white men] ill as well.”
“I think it has, Nnamdi.” [pp.289-290]
Nnamdi’s people, the Ijaw, was the tribe who used to capture people from other tribes, take them to the coast and sell them to the white slavers. So in Nigeria, they’re not particularly well-loved, and the government views their protests against the oil industry as a kind of anti-Nigerian act of terrorism. Reading Nnamdi’s story, it pretty much breaks your heart, watching along with him as the precious mangrove swamps – mangroves being one of those instrumental vegetation needed to filter CO2 from the air – are annihilated, the water poisoned, the fish and animals obliterated. So much waste – it’s unbelievable. Anywhere else, the industry is fairly well regulated, but in Nigeria, either no one cares or it’s simply too dangerous – the locals have made sure that any attempts to repair pipelines, for instance, are a death mission.
That’s another aspect touched upon in 419: colonialism and inter-tribal conflict. There are running jokes about the different tribes, of which there are many, who, like everywhere in Africa, now find themselves lumped together in one country thanks to the borders drawn by European colonists.
What was Nigeria?
It was a net, loosely thrown, a name on a map, one created by the British to paper over the gaping cracks in the joinery. A conjurer’s trick, where the many became one, a sleight of hand, like the tired magic of old men making coins disappear. “There is no Nigeria.” This was the lesson [Amina's] uncle had wished to impart. “There is Fulani and Hausa, Igbo and Tiv, Efik and Kanuri, Gwari and Yoruba. But Nigeria? That is on the pail we carry these in.”
But she knew better.
She knew that the naming of a place helped bring it into existence. The naming of a location – or a person, a child – was a way of claiming them. Until you named something, it wasn’t fully real. The trick to staying invisible, then, was to remain nameless. Without a name, you couldn’t be pinned in place, couldn’t be cornered or captured. [p.82]
The unnamed woman from the Sahel, who calls herself Amina, is decidedly foreign, alien, yet sympathetic – especially woman-to-woman. We never learn the real reason why she’s fleeing her tribal land, her village, her people – the way she talks about them gives me the idea she still has pride in who she is and where she’s from, but something happened to drive her out, most likely linked to her pregnancy. I found that not knowing increased the mystery of her, and kept you wary, but also made you proud of her too. In the end, it didn’t matter that we don’t learn the truth, it becomes irrelevant. Nnamdi is a hugely likeable character. Unlike many others that fill the background of the story, he is loyal, trustworthy, respectful, intelligent and full of life and even laughter. He is only about eighteen years old, and the fact that he was the most sympathetic character of all of them makes his story the hardest to read about.
The weak link is Laura, though part of this is deliberate on Ferguson’s part and the rest is a let-down in what was strong storytelling up to the end. Laura comes from a different world, and when she arrives in Nigeria she represents the quintessential white colonist, caught up in her own objective, her own wishes, with zero empathy or any wish to understand the people she encounters. She blunders in in typical white-foreigner fashion, making things so much worse, and effectively kills one character. While I could see her side of it and understand her actions, because I had got to know the other characters and their world a bit, I found her abhorrent and unsympathetic. It just goes to show what knowledge and education can do to your perspective, in opening your mind. The question then becomes, Just who is the real victim? There are many ways to be a victim, and it’s never black-and-white like you wish it was, like Laura makes it out to be.
The trouble is that Laura’s not a very convincing character. Interestingly enough, Ferguson did a much better job at capturing the Nigerians, than he did his own countrywoman. It’s hard to really understand her, because she’s so withdrawn and lives like a hermit. I would have respected her but that, after making her point, she then demands the money – when all this time she’s claimed it wasn’t about the money. I don’t know whether to think that in the heat of the moment, she lashed out to hurt more deeply, or whether, deep down, it really is about the money, always. Food for thought.
The novel is full of parallels, between the oil pumping like hot blood through the Niger Delta contrasted with the wealth of industry and progress in Laura’s city, to the parallel between the description of a man having a tyre put around his chest and arms, doused in petrol and set alight, to the detective investigating a scene near Laura’s apartment building in which a homeless man has been set alight: these juxtapositions show both the interconnectedness of the world (the fact that what’s happening in one country – that we all like to frown upon – often benefits our own – like China’s emissions, largely created by the demand for cheap products consumed by us), as well as showing that the cruelty seen in one country, like Nigeria, is not confined to it – that we can be cruel and violent and heartless, too. A lot of the time, these parallels were a bit obvious, a bit heavy-handed, but I still appreciated their presence.
As a story, 419 is an impressive work, richly layered, complex, nuances and empathetic, fleshing out a country that’s easy to demonise and isolate as its own downfall. As the winner of Canada’s most prestigious literary award, I’m not so sure. This is solid fiction, but not what I would expect of the Giller Prize. It has some absolutely lovely prose, some beautiful – if harrowing – descriptions, and speaks to the condition of humanity and the human heart with touching honesty and wry humour. It is a story I definitely recommend, one that shows great sensitivity towards another culture and people and tells their story with much respect. It was a better story, overall, than Spanish Fly. But I don’t think I would have picked it for a Giller winner.
“Where 419 failed for me [...] was the staleness of the topic. [...] I received some of these e-mails myself the mid-nineties, yet the novels makes it easy to assume that this scam is a fairly new occurrence—something I found bothersome. [...] There was African mysticism and mythology abounding, and this particular story thread introduced us to the ecological and economic devastation caused by oil exploration, not to mention the political destabilization caused by vigilante action and black market siphoning. When this side plot appeared out of thin air, I was riveted; it was difficult to even put the book down. This is what the book should have been about, in my opinion, and it’s a shame that the author got so caught up in e-mail scams when there was so much other captivating and mesmerizing material to work with.” The Indiscriminate Critic
“…a fast-paced, sweeping novel that takes you into a world full of crime, suffering, greed, revenge and redemption. [...] Will Ferguson is a fantastic writer and I am such a fan of his earlier humour writing [...] I strongly questioned whether or not a book of this genre would be any good. This is an incredible novel and it proves that Ferguson is a talented writer of any genre.” Curled Up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea
“419 is a big, sprawling novel, filled with all kinds of social, political and economic messages about the state of the world today. It’s by no means a perfect novel [...] But, on the whole, this is a gripping read, one that feels authentic and edgy. It takes a big picture view and marries a cracking good plot with finely crafted prose and believable characters. And I suspect it would make a brilliant film, not least because of Ferguson’s eye for detail and the visual quality of his writing.” Reading Matters
“Viewed as a semi-farcical novel, the flaws of logic smooth out and the “hang on a minute” moments are much more forgivable, but I didn’t ever get the feeling that this was the Big Important Serious Novel that some mainstream reviewers have made it out to be. Sure, there are some serious elements, and those lend poignancy to the tale, but to me it seems just another diversionary read, to be consumed with a certain gusto and set back on the shelf among all of the other well-wrought entertainments of the semi-serious sort.” Leaves and Pages
“[A] memorable story, a clearer understanding of third world exploitation, new knowledge about 419 schemes and what drives some people to perpetrate them, and a tragic climax; but uneven character and plot development.” ExUrbanis
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