To be 419′ed is to be fooled. Duped. Swindled. At least that’s the meaning as far as Nigerian slang is concerned — of which this book has plenty on offer. The question is: does Will Ferguson’s Giller-winning novel deliver on the award hype, or does it 419 us? The answer is… yes. “419″ begins when a hapless Calgarian falls for a Nigerian email scam (for more info, see your spam folder from ten years ago). He subsequently ruins his finances and offs himself, setting in motion a quest that will see his surviving daughter, Laura, attempt to find out who is responsible.
From the beginning, the novel flits back and forth between Laura picking up the pieces in Canada and a host of Nigerian characters whose roles in the story will not become clear until the climax. With Nnamdi (a young man from the oil-rich Niger delta ), Amina (a troubled girl from the Muslim north), and Winston (an educated city boy turned scammer) we have three intertwining narratives that provide something of a portrait of contemporary Nigeria. The stark differences between north and south. The oil-slicked hellhole of the southern delta. Rural poverty. Urban chaos. More on this depiction later.
This fast-paced movement is one of the novel’s strengths. It doesn’t give you time to get bored, because the scenes aren’t overdrawn — particularly at the beginning. Indeed, with 129 chapters, the average length of each is only three pages (1,000 words), and many are as short as a paragraph. One page you’re in a Calgary food court, the next you’re walking through ash under the Sahelian sun, and the next you’re motorboating through an oil-drenched mangrove forest on the Bight of Bonny.
That being said, there are some slack parts. In particular, a 32-page section chronicling Nnamdi’s coming of age and the gradual environmental destruction of the Niger delta.
It’s not that the topic doesn’t merit a 10,000-word treatment. A subject like that is worth a book of its own, or several. The real problem, rather, is the Nigerian narratives are slightly didactic.
Ferguson has apparently never been to Africa, and quite frankly, it shows. While he has a real talent for rendering rich scenes and bringing the Nigerian environment to life, my enjoyment of the narrative was brought low by unlikely dialogue that would be more at home in a political science text than in the mouth of a real human being.
Let’s look at an example. It’s taken from a section about how Shell’s local development projects were little more than cynical PR stunts:
“The health-care clinic has no roof!” people shouted at the members of the larger ibe. “How much dey payin’ you?”
“Not stolen, taken. That clinic was empty. No nurse, no doctor. Why let the roof just sit over nothing like that?”
“A nurse comes!”
“Once a year! If that. Once a year from Portako, nurse be coming to inject us with inoculate for everything except oil…” (p. 178)
This kind of dialogue is parachuted into the narrative in such an instructional fashion that it robs the characters who speak it of any personality worth noticing. These characters’ purpose seems only to convey information about injustice in Nigeria, not to speak like normal human beings. And in a novel you must always prefer true character over information. If I want to bone up on Nigerian history, I’ll hit the library.
There are a number of sections like this throughout the book that weaken the Nigerian side of the narrative. They often take the form of Character A making small talk about his people’s sacred beliefs and customs with Character B, the two of whom have just met (see sections 78 & 80).
Maybe this won’t bother readers who aren’t familiar with Nigeria—you might be intrigued by the descriptions of water gods and creation myths and so forth—but Africans just don’t talk like this. Nobody does. It would be like if you bumped into someone from Finland and the first thing the two of you discussed were your cosmological beliefs.
I can see the process that led to this. I can imagine exactly how it happened. Perhaps it went something like this: the writer has never been to Africa. The writer wants to do well, so he studies up—reading, talking to people, surfing the net. He accumulates a lot of information. What an interesting place, Nigeria! What fascinating cultures! What colour that would bring to the story! And how educational it will be!
This is a laudable impulse. People should know more about Nigeria. But it leads to two problems. The first is that it pushes the African characters toward objectification — their role in the story is to convey difference, exoticism. And the world they inhabit is the opposite of ours: hot to our cold, polluted to our clean, impoverished to our affluent.
And of course this is all true. These are, so to speak, the facts. Most Nigerians are poor. Yet as always in literature, it is a question of emphasis. And the emphasis in 419 is too often on strangeness.
In that sense it parallels colonial ethnography—a catalogue of the unknown, a juxtaposition of here and there. Yet serious students of Africa have moved on. These days they’re more interested in Africans as people rather than Africans as Africans, if you see the difference. In 419, while the main Nigerian characters are multifaceted, they are too often animated by didactic tendencies that erode their position as people. They become, rather, spokespeople.
This leads to the second problem, which is that this sort of writing undermines the believability of the characters. Again, people don’t neatly lay out their worldviews, philosophies, and social problems to near-strangers — unless those strangers are, perhaps, anthropologists. Not that I’m a great expert, but no African I’ve ever met talks that way.
Am I being too picky? Perhaps. But this may be a good way to find out: pick up any famous Nigerian novel — Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s first, Purple Hibiscus–and see if the characters speak like a drama scene from an International Development Studies class. If memory serves me right, they don’t.
Predictably, this made the Canadian side of the book the most enjoyable. Ferguson’s protagonist, Laura, is likeable and well-drawn, and when she gets on the trail of the conmen responsible for her father’s death, you can’t help but smile. Pretty gutsy for a timid copyeditor from Calgary.
The pace of the novel is snappy, too, and when I think of this book the phrase “Good to read on an airplane” comes to mind. Maybe it’s because it’s easily digestible — the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are all short and clear. The story is solid. 419 is a very respectable piece of entertainment.
And this brings us back to the Giller question, because winning big prizes always conjures up fun terms like “literary gravitas,” along with the question of whether the book is not just a heart-pounding thriller but also a contribution to letters.
Heart-pounding thriller? Page-turner? More or less. I must admit the final fifty pages had me revved up. The story does have a kick to it.
A contribution to letters? Mmm … no. For one thing, the prose isn’t what I’d call lyrical. ‘Serviceable’ is the word that comes to mind. ‘Satisfactory.’ It gets the job done—and, to be fair, it does sparkle in places. But I don’t think there is a remarkable literary voice to be found in 419. I wasn’t transported to emotional heights by Ferguson’s phraseology. I wasn’t in awe of his sentences. I didn’t feel I was swimming in his words, the way I do when reading Julian Barnes or Howard Jacobson. And whatever you might say about the subject matter or plots of these recent Booker prize winners’ novels, their mastery of prose isn’t in question.
With Ferguson, on the other hand, it was hit and miss. Maybe that brings us back to the stilted dialogue.
And maybe that was never Ferguson’s intention — to write a ‘literary’ novel. If so, it would be unfair to judge him by those standards. But ultimately all I have to guide me is my taste. And in my opinion, this is not an outstanding novel. Decent, but not outstanding.
My sense is it will appeal more to the lover of thrillers and popular fiction than to the ‘literary’ type. If you aren’t so demanding of dialogue, and you don’t mind Ferguson’s over-exotic bent, you may really love 419.
But if you’re the person who likes picking up the latest Booker and Giller winners to see what passes for literature these days, prepare to feel lukewarm.
* This is an edited version of a review by Robert Nathan, a PhD student in African history at Dalhouse University in Canada.