Laura remembers being impatient with her father, when he discovered symbols of the four elements in a shopping mall’s design.
Water, earth, air and fire: he had spotted representations of all of them.
She was carrying too many parcels, frustrated by needing to ask him to help with her burden, and only after his death does she recall this incident, wondering if he had been searching for some essential truth.
There is a mystery surrounding her father’s death.
Readers are aware of the complicated circumstances before Laura is, because Will Ferguson’s narrative affords access to a variety of voices, so readers know that there is more than one set of tire-tracks leading off the road.
The multiple perspectives and the intricate plotting keep the pages turning, but at the heart of it all, 419 revolves around the idea that what appears to be true at first glance is actually much more complicated.
And, so, the segments in 419 are not named for the elements, but for more complex representations of these vital substances: snow, sand, fuel, fire.
Each of these has connections to each of the narrative’s threads (literally or figuratively), either in memory or in real-time events that unfold on the page.
The thematic layering works to maintain a cohesive narrative despite a format of short chapters which, increasingly, sprawl across continents and narrators as more complications are revealed. Unexpected connections and parallels between characters’ experiences also work to smooth the edges as do overt demonstrations of the author’s crafting.
The work is titled for the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that “deals with obtaining money or goods under false pretenses. Any kind of fraud, really. It’s entered the lexicon over there.”
Anyone with an email address has likely received an invitation to such ventures, e-mails requesting assistance with investing sums of money overseas or securing passage for innocents in dangerous situations. Most recipients think nothing of these letters, perhaps don’t even see them if a mail program’s spam filter is set up to block them.
“But don’t be fooled: 419 is a business. It brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It’s bigger than Nigeria; it’s as old as sin. As old as desire. These 419ers, they prey on people’s dreams. Average loss in a 419 scam is somewhere to the tune of $250,000 – often more. The going rate for dreams, apparently.”
But don’t be fooled; the detective has a clear cut analysis of the situation, but in Will Ferguson’s novel, it is more complicated than that.
Many of these 419ers spend long days working with bulk mailings that flood inboxes around the world but for Winston, a day working with these letters is not just a way to pay his bills but an art. He spends a great deal of time perfecting his contact with individuals who will be more likely to respond to particular requests, rewriting content so that it speaks to the targets’ individual situations, deliberately wording and timing his efforts.
Winston’s long, solitary work day is detail-oriented, often overlooked as insignificant, and lonely: not all that different from Laura’s work as a freelance copyeditor. It is one of many parallels which subtly unifies the work. In one scene, Winston speaks of fishing with words, of netting and hooking and spearing the targets of 419s. In another scene, there is a father and son actually fishing. In one scene, a North American police officer mentions Lagos Lagoon and in the next a Nigerian character observes the lagoon.
But even that, ‘Nigerian’, is a scam from some perspectives.
“It was a net loosely thrown, a name on a map, one created by the British to paper over the gaping cracks in the joinery. A conjurer’s trick, where the many became one, a sleight of hand, like the tired magic of old men making coins disappear. ‘There is no Nigeria.’ This was the first lesson her uncle had wished to impart. ‘There is Fulani and Hausa, Igbo and Tiv, Efik and Kanuri, Gwari and Yoruba. But Nigeria? That is only the pail we carry these in.’”
And those who have thrown the net are, from some perspectives, scammers.
“‘We are tax collectors, Adam. We charge a tax on greed. We should be congratulated, not prosecuted, and yet it is we who are called the criminals. Criminals! They talk about Nigerian’s ‘culture of corruption’. What of Europe’s ‘culture of greed’? What of America’s? What of these oyibos agreeing to schemes that are so clearly illegal, were they to be true?'”
The stories of residents in the land colonized as Nigeria comprise the bulk of 419, and Will Ferguson does not falsely simplify the differences between them, whether in speaking of the superficial or more inherently complex issues like social class.
(For instance, Amina is from the Sahel, with its savannah tastes and scents and clear air, a land of crumbling soil that turns to sand in her hand; her skin is the colour of “old clay, of dust, of sand”, she bears scars that identify her kinship lines, and she is accustomed to eating lamb, groundnuts, beef, onions and greens. In contrast, Nnamdi has the “dark sheen of oil, as though it had soaked into his skin” from the sticky southern lands, the soil so dark and oily that it marks the soils of one’s feet, and he eats mostly fish, plantains, sugar, cocoyams and cassava.)
Tax collectors and criminals, militia and bank employees, police officers and roadside gangs, parents and children, thieves and children, fathers and murderers: Will Ferguson’s novel is set in an arena which is inherently compelling and readers can track the plot as narrative lines echo and converge.
Some characters pursue, others are the pursued; some change roles as the story progresses.
“But here, under this open sky? On these open plains? Where would you hide? Where could you hide? A single body cast a long presence out here. Hunters could track you simply by the shadow you trailed, even in moonlight. You would have to run very far to escape.”
If you don’t have tire-tracks or a desert to assist you, how do you track someone who does not want to be found? How does a single sender cast a shadow in an email?
How do you track the love of a man who has died with secrets that you don’t understand? When one profits from a situation that also helps somebody, how much of the motivation is greed and how much kindness?
What happens when some hunt by shadows and others avoid even stepping on them because that would be to step on a soul? How do you define ‘hunter’ and ‘hunted’ in the context of a legacy of colonialism?
When you break down the elements of a human life, are the subject headings the same matters of importance that appear on a bank statement, a police incident report, or in an email exchange?
One simple statement reverberates throughout the narrative and the stories of several characters: “Loss demands repayment.”
But the answer is rooted in elemental truths that complicate the question of currency.
Will Ferguson’s novel reaches beyond the armful of shopping bags and the bulging spam filter; 419 scrapes back the layers to reveal what really matters.
I’m reading my way through the 2012 Giller Prize longlist: have you read this novel, or are you thinking about reading it?