419. Penguin Random House Canada
This is a novel about Canada and about Nigeria that was awarded Canada’s top literary honour, the Giller Prize, in 2012. The novel is about a harmless Calgary retiree who is driven to suicide because he becomes trapped in an elaborate Nigerian financial scam called a “419” after the section of the Nigerian criminal code intended to curtail it. Since this is the subject, it is no surprise that the novel does not make Nigeria out to be a very civilized place, a safe place, or a place worth investing your time, your money, or your hopes. In other words, “419” is one of those Western representations of Africa that make Africa out to be eternally the very antithesis of what defines us; the journey of Laura the protagonist, the gutsy and vengeful daughter of the deceased, to Lagos feels like a journey into Joseph Contrad’s Heart of Darkness, into what Conrad called “a black and incomprehensible frenzy.” As the narrative ranges across Nigeria, Ferguson describes “rivers of raw sewage,” “shirtless shoulders draped with ammunition,” “endless arrangements of thorn bush and scrub grass,” and “thousands of dead fish . . . floating on the water, . . . coated in oil.” Added to those familiar images of dark, impoverished Africa are depictions of dark, rich Africa: the opulence of Lagos’s nouveau riche, rich because of mafia-esque criminal operations, particularly internet scams, and ruthless violence.
Since the first Giller Prize was given in 1994, half of the prizes awarded have gone to novels set in whole or in large part overseas (including two of Vassanji’s novels about East Africa). Ferguson has done a great deal of research about Nigeria and is able to do justice to Nigeria’s tremendous geographic, cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity. Despite confirming some negative stereotypes about Africa, his novel is a tremendous education. But what’s more interesting to this reviewer is the way it locates in Calgary some of the same horrors. The novel incriminates multinational oil companies for destroying the natural and social environment of the Niger Delta, where the childhood of one main character is located; but it also gives a brief account of the death of the panhandler Ambrose Littlechild, who was doused in oil by unknown assailants, and set on fire in the shadow of downtown Calgary’s oil company towers. At the novel’s centre is Laura Curtis’s attempt to work out her love for her father—by mourning but also by revenge; yet love and pain are continually set side-by-side with similar dynamics in the families of the Nigerian characters who occupy the three main sub-plots.
Amina is a young Tuareg woman from Nigeria’s far north who is walking hundreds of kilometres across the savannah, inexplicably, though we know her journey has to do with her love for the child she will soon give birth to. Nnamdi is an Ijaw fisherman from Nigeria’s South-east, the Delta, who becomes a technician with the oil companies but also gets involved with illegal pipeline tapping; his faithfulness to his mother and his spiritual kinship with his tribe and his deceased father are his primary motivations. Winston is a privileged Lagosian who supports his parents with the proceeds of his “419” scams; he is the one whose emails eventually won him all of Henry Curtis’s assets, driving the Calgarian to take his own life in an attempt to provide for his family through his life insurance. Parents caring for children and children caring for parents are the novel’s leitmotifs.
Ferguson’s complex plot is well built. The 129 chapters, many of which are only a page long, allow him to jump rapidly back and forth among the sub-plots. Only in the novel’s last few pages do they all converge; and it is partly the question of how they will ever manage to converge that maintains the novel’s intensity for 400 pages. Another source of excitement is the emails, where we get to see the way the e-predator lures his e-prey and, at the end of the novel, how Laura, a copywriter by profession, manages to beat the predator at his own game.