I received 419 as a Christmas gift and read it and enjoyed it during a very cold week in February. It was an absorbing read that allowed me to forget the weather outside. Ever since, I have been trying to figure out what I liked about this book and have come to the conclusion that it is the shape of the narrative that I found to be very pleasing.
The story has many threads and explores, in part how an intelligent person could get tangled up in an e-mail scam and eventually be tricked out of his or her life’s savings. Section 419 is the part of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud and in the popular culture is the term used to describe a type of cyber fraud. Typically the victim of this crime will be taken in by a mysterious e-mail containing a plea for help from a fictitious Nigerian prince who is being persecuted by authorities and needs to transfer money out of Nigeria in order to escape torture and imprisonment. This prince asks permission to transfer a large fortune to the victim’s bank account in North America. After gaining the victim’s confidence and promising a handsome financial reward the perpetrator tricks the victim into sending money for legal fees or transfer fees or money to bribe bank officials etc.… all of it pure invention and all for the purpose of getting as much money as possibly out of the unfortunate individual who has been duped by the scam.
I first heard of this kind of fraud back in the 1990’s when a very prominent individual in this province was charged and eventually went to prison for dipping into a trust fund in order to get a similar imaginary fortune out of Nigeria. At the time it seemed incredible that a man of intelligence; a well-educated professional, could be so easily fooled. Conventional wisdom judged him to have been blinded by simple, uncomplicated greed. As you read 419 the author demonstrates that perhaps such a hasty judgment is superficial and the motivation behind an individual’s actions can be far more complex than what they appear to be on the surface.
The novel is constructed like a four pointed star or maybe like the cardinal points on a compass. The four main characters that populate this story start out at the furthest tips of the star and it is the author’s story telling that brings them together at the center where the story is resolved satisfactorily with a surprise ending. There is Laura, a freelance copy editor living in Calgary whose father has committed suicide after falling victim to a 419 scam. Then the reader is introduced to, Winston a well educated young man living in Lagos Nigeria without hope of future employment who is the 419 fraudster. The third character is Nnamdi who has grown up in a fishing village in the Niger Delta and has lived to see his environment destroyed in the pursuit of oil by uncontrolled and unregulated multinational corporations. He must live by his wits in a world of private armies and petty oil thieves and adapt to change in order to survive. Finally there is Amina, a young pregnant woman; the most enigmatic of the four who walks out of the dusty desserts of northern Nigeria with no possessions but her indigo colored robe and a can to carry drinking water.
There are also four parts to the novel, the first is entitled ‘Snow’ representing I think the far reaches of Canada. The second is ‘Sand’; the part that pulls in Amina from the dessert and the cattle herding lands of Northern Nigeria where Muslim law and values dominate. The third part is entitled ‘Fuel’, representing the dystopian world of the Niger Delta where the violent encounters of paramilitary guards and petty thieves leeching oil from broken pipe lines seems to have been inspired by movies such as Mad Max or Waterworld. Finally there is ‘Fire’ representing sad and useless destruction through heroic immolation followed by the Phoenix of hope in new generation. This all sounds a bit melodramatic but that is because I am condensing everything into a few words. Mr. Ferguson’s prose is calm, steady and free of over sentimentality.
Laura is so upset by what happened to her father she sets out on a mission to trap whoever destroyed him and ultimately, destroyed her family’s happiness. Here the author imagines that Laura, as a proofreader-editor, is ideally trained to track down an individual existing only in cyber space. Studying the e-mails that had taken in her father’s confidence she focuses on the word patterns of someone for whom English was a second language. In this way she insinuates herself into the ethereal world of 419 and lays a trap for the young and aimless e-mail scammer, Winston. As the story moves from Canada to Nigeria it picks up pace and some very humorous asides are introduced such as Nnamdi’s road trip with an eccentric truck driver who drives his rusty old rig along narrow roads as if it were a slim, sleek race car.
However, returning to the novel’s construction, I want to mention the question asked at the beginning of the book after the title page but before Chapter 1. It begins with: “Would you die for your child? This is the only question a parent needs to answer…” (the italics are the author’s). The unconditional self-sacrifice derived from parental love is an important theme for the author which brings me back to the form of the four-pointed star. Somewhere deep in my mired memory I recall a young Sister Pauline explaining to a classroom of bored schoolgirls that the four pointed star over the stable of Bethlehem represented the sacred cross that would eventually kill the baby inside when he grew up to become an itinerant teacher. The shepherd dies trying to save the sheep. The parent (god) sacrifices the son to save the other children. I assure you, there is no religiosity in 419; this thought is just my own little gloss ( the better term is perhaps my self indulgent ‘conceit’) in the literary sence of the term. I mention it here because the English language is so deeply rooted in its major influences of Greece, Rome, Western Christianity as well as the influences of of Chaucer, of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and so on, that references arise out of the words and live sublimely in the artistry of the author whatever his religion or non religion. It is the wonder and beauty of language that it collects history and enriches our lives proving that language is a living and growing thing. The storyteller cannot get away from the words and the images the words evoke even if they are recycled over generations and evolve eventually to mean something else. It has often occurred to me that language can take the responsibility for a great deal of the design of a story as words are necessarily the writer’s building blocks.
This is a gentle book lightly written but with some heavy themes. At the end, following the example of Yann Martel in What is Prime Minister Harper Reading? I had the urge to wrap it up and send it to the PM’s office with a letter highlighting the parts that deal with the potential destructiveness of the petroleum industry.