419 – Will Ferguson – 2012
Posted by Steven on 29/7/2013, 12:26:36
419 is a novel by the Canadian author Will Ferguson. It won the Giller Prize last year. The first US edition is about to be released, and I was sent an advance review copy by the publisher. I’m mentioning it here because it is a Canadian novel that Lale has probably heard of, but also because I thought it was excellent, entertaining, and very informative about conditions in Nigeria. Here is the review I just wrote:
In Calgary, Canada, a man drives his car over a cliff hoping (in vain) that the life insurance settlement will compensate his family for his losing everything they owned. He is just one of many victims of a type of fraud known as a Nigerian 419 scheme. His daughter, Laura, and the rest of the family later sit in stunned disbelief as the police explain how her father was lured in by e-mails promising a rich reward for helping a person in need. They are also astonished to learn that there is nothing the police can, or will, do to pursue the defrauder. When asked about taking action as an individual, the police advise strongly against it, saying that it’s almost impossible to recover the money, and that going to Nigeria is very dangerous. “What if it’s not about the money?”, Laura asks.
For a number of years I worked as the manager of an IT department, and it was my job to educate the employees in my organization about these 419 schemes, most, but not all, of which originate in Nigeria. (The number “419” refers to a Nigerian penal statute.) I have seen many variations of the initial fraud message, and I have had highly educated people take the first steps toward disaster, only to bring copies of their correspondence to me for reassurance before taking the final bait. They are always dumbfounded to learn that nothing can be done about these fraud attempts. So I am speaking from some personal experience when I say that Will Ferguson has perfectly captured not only the modus operandi of the schemers, but the psychology of the prospective victims. It’s unthinkable that intelligent people would fall for such frauds, even after having been warned, but they do.
Laura is a copy editor and highly attuned to patterns in English usage and common mistakes. She will use her skills to track down the man who caused her father to take his own life. She will go to Nigeria. We know this from the beginning of the novel because Ferguson’s narrative is broken into dozens of short chapters shifting back and forward in time and from place to place, and we have seen Laura arrive in Lagos before we know why. But Laura’s quest for retribution is actually not the predominate theme of the novel. 419 gives us a panoramic portrait of Nigeria through the eyes of three Nigerians, one of whom is the defrauder himself.
One of the others is a young woman named Amina from the arid northern savannas where Islamic law is in force. Expelled from her village for an unwed pregnancy, she undertakes a perilous journey across a parched land, begging, stealing, and scavenging among garbage for food.
The third Nigerian, and in some respects the central character of the novel, is Nnamdi, a boy from a fishing village in the mangrove swamps of the Niger River delta. Through him, and over the course of several years, we see the impact of oil exploration and drilling on Nigeria. Forests are bulldozed, crops destroyed, rivers poisoned, and the air and water turned foul by what one villager calls “the devil’s excrement.” Oil companies from Europe and America operating free of environmental controls and government oversight turn the delta into a sewer and take unconscionable risks. Corruption spreads, the farmers and fishermen become beggars or criminals, while the rich hide in fortified compounds and drive armored limousines.
The author gives us a vivid and sometimes horrifying picture of Nigeria: its ethnic diversity, economic disparity, and chaotic violence. Homeless children scavenge in raw sewage in the shadow of gleaming office towers. Young men sabotage oil pipelines in the hope of being hired by the oil company to clean up the mess they made. There are riots for fuel in a country rich with oil, and the army and the police fight one another. Interwoven with the Nigerian scenes, the story of Laura’s quest for vengeance maintains and edge-of-your-seat tension.
The weakest aspect of 419 is that some elements of Laura’s story beg for further development. Her plans seem to depend all too often on the unlikeliest of several possible outcomes, as though the ending is pulling the story to it. But the broader scope of the novel, its depiction of today’s Nigeria, and the insightful portrayal of the psychology surrounding the 419 fraud schemes makes this a book I highly recommend.