For me, the best kind of literature is the kind that makes you look at something afresh or takes you to a location (or time in history) that you would never normally visit. Will Ferguson's 419 is that kind of literature.
In short, it is about a Canadian man who gets stung by a Nigerian email scam, but it is also about the cultural and financial disparity between Africa and the West. It is a heady mix of adventure story, crime fiction and global thriller — albeit with a distinctive 21st century twist.
Caught in a web of deception
This rather ambitious novel has multiple storylines and a wide cast of characters. The central thread revolves around the death of Henry Curtis, a retired school teacher now working as a part-time watchman, who dies in an unusual traffic accident: his car, travelling at very high speeds, runs off the road one night and tumbles into a snowy ravine underneath a bridge. Initially, it is thought he may have hit a patch of black ice, but later, when it is revealed that his car made two attempts to leave the road, his death is chalked up as suicide.
When the home he shares with his wife — also a retired school teacher — is repossessed by the bank, it appears that Mr Curtis had numerous, and hefty, financial debts. He had, rather naively, been taken in my an email scam (known in Nigeria as "419" after the criminal code which makes this kind of activity illegal), the type most of us would ignore or delete if they made their way through our SPAM filter.
SUBJECT: Urgent Matter to the Attention of Mr. Henry Curtis. Please do not turn away!
RECEIVED: September 12, 11:42PM
Complements of the season! With warm heart I offer you wishes of good health from Africa. I am contacting you today regarding an urgent business proposal, and though this letter may reach you as a surprise, I implore you to take the time to go through it carefully as the decision you make will go a long ways toward determining the future and continued existence of a young woman's happiness. Sir, I am writing today on behalf of Miss Sandra, daughter of Dr. Atta, late Director & Chairman of the Contract Award Committee for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. As you may know, Dr. Atta died tragically in a helicopter crash in the Niger Delta under circumstances most suspicious. Miss Sandra's uncle vowed to care for her, but he too has fallen afoul of government-backed criminals...
His two adult children — Warren and Laura — take his death and the impending loss of the family home in different ways. Warren, a married man with children, is prone to loud outbursts, all air and fury, while Laura, a single woman who makes her living as a copy editor, decides to beat the scammers at their own game.
In a second storyline, we meet the scammer — Winston — who runs his one-man operation out of a cyber cafe in Lagos. Winston is cleverer than most — he's figured out that it pays to choose your targets carefully and "once hooked, it became a matter of playing them, of reeling in the line, overcoming their initial resistance, giving them slack at certain times, pulling taut at others". But Winston is playing a dangerous game, because the world of cyberscamming is deftly controlled by street-gang syndicates who don't appreciate those who go it alone.
A third storyline introduces Nnamdi, an innocent boy from a fishing village in the Niger Delta, who becomes unwittingly tied up with a Nigerian "mafia" boss who runs many of these internet scams. But when we first meet Nnamdi, he is working on Bonny Island — the terminus of the Trans-Niger Pipeline at the mouth of the Delta — where he "took motors apart and put them back together. He oiled bearings, cleaned cogs, replaced timing belts". His situation is in stark contrast to the rest of his peers, many of whom are blowing up pipelines and kidnapping Western employees to get the message across that the global oil corporations are not welcome in the Delta.
Later, he meets and rescues a pregnant woman, who is from the Sahel "from a clan rumoured to carry Arabian blood in their veins". This storyline — perhaps the weakest of the multiple ones that Ferguson juggles in choppy, sometimes staccato fashion — serves to show us how innocent, well-meaning people, such as Nmadi, can get caught up in events bigger than themselves. And it also shows us how corruption permeates through almost every facet of Nigerian life.
From my description above, it's pretty clear that 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 — sometimes it feels like facts, especially the ways in which these "419 scams" work are being shoe-horned in, and it can never seem to work out its mind whether it's a literary novel, a travel adventure or a sociopolitical thriller. It also experiments with style — sometimes the chapters are only several paragraphs long, and the section about Nnamdi could almost be extracted as a stand alone novella — not always successfully.
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.
Of the three Giller Prize shortlisted novels I have reviewed so far, I would be more than happy to see this one win it.