by Will Ferguson
I never thought I’d read the words “Will Ferguson” and “book about Rwanda” in the same sentence. When I did, the idea intrigued me. What on earth did Will Ferguson—a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour—and Rwanda have to do with one another? I wanted to know.
Turns out, Ferguson has a child who played soccer with the child of Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a Rwandan who escaped the genocide. Will and Jean-Claude became friends, and the friendship led to the decision to tell the story of Rwanda reborn.
So, a novelist known for humorous writing and an escapee from genocide go on a road trip.
Does the idea make you feel a little apprehensive? It did me. The horrific events of the 1994 Rwanda genocide defy description and comprehension. How would Ferguson manage to honour those killed and those who survived and still write a novel that touches the light side of our humanity?
“I’d always maintained that a sense of humour can be found in any destination, no matter how bruised, how battered, and that through humour we can find a sense of shared humanity. But Rwanda?”
Ferguson does it. He doesn’t shy away from the horror of one million people being brutally murdered in a mere 100 days—the length of an average university semester. He shares the obvious scars—a car rental agent with a thick machete slash scar from ear to ear—and the hidden scars, evidenced in the many moments when he and Jean-Claude can do nothing more than stand together in silence.
The gifts of this book come Ferguson’s exceptional storytelling ability combined with Jean-Claude’s intimate knowledge of the country, the communities, the events, the people, the recovery, the new leadership, and the damage. Ferguson writes stories that make me want to pull up a chair, lean forward on my knees and take in every nuance, as if he were recounting a tale by the fireside. He is a fine writer who describes scenes vividly, sometimes poetically, and always authentically. No pretentious literary meanderings for him.
“Kigali is draped across a loose federation of hills, and the city’s main thoroughfares often run along high-wire ridges before dropping suddenly into the valleys below. This layout—the dip and drop, the ridges and sloping descents, the whorls and loops—makes driving through the city akin to navigating a fingerprint.”
Jean-Claude and Will venture into the public sites and the private homes of the new Rwanda, a country that has a growing list of optimistic statistics indicating recovery and new growth. They share unspeakably sad moments, of course, but they share humorous moments involving fire ants, Primus beer, gorillas in the wild and a journey to the source of the Nile. (Ferguson is a descendant of David Livingstone, apparently. No, really.)
The two journey around a country dealing with “the consequences of targeting one segment of society, of singling out one specific group of people,” and in the end, find hope in children and a game of soccer in the dusty streets.
by Will Ferguson
Penguin Canada, 2012
The problem with prize-winning novels is, we can’t read them without thinking, “Would I have given this a prize?” We can’t read them without comparing them with the other contenders and second-guessing the work of the judges.
419 received the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize—a rather big deal here in Canada. No matter what people think about this book, with a Giller Prize win Will Ferguson won’t have any trouble signing book contracts for future projects.
Is he deserving? I think so.
419 begins with the stories of four very different, seemingly unconnected, people: Laura, a copy editor living in Calgary; Winston, a Nigerian internet scammer; Amina, a pregnant Muslim woman travelling through Nigeria alone to flee a mysterious threat; and Nnamdi, a boy from the Nigerian Delta who leaves his village to work for American oil interests. As savvy readers, we know they will inevitably connect, but Ferguson unfolds the story carefully, so we must keep reading to see how these disparate threads intertwine. Even when the inevitable meeting happens, we can’t predict the final outcome, so we must keep reading to see what transpires. I wouldn’t call it a page-turner, but I would call it compelling.
419 is the section in the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with obtaining money through fraudulent means—internet email scams, for example. A significant portion of this book is set in Nigeria, and Ferguson does an outstanding job (Dare I say prize-winning?) of portraying Nigeria with harsh truths but respect and love. While reading, I thought repeatedly, “A Canadian wrote this?” How could a writer not born, raised and steeped in Nigerian culture capture it with such sensory precision? When reading Ferguson’s description of a car trip through Lagos, I could almost see, hear, smell the African city.
Ferguson wrote some beautiful phrases that I stopped and savoured. “She had outwalked her own dialect . . .” “Wealth produced garbage as surely as food produced feces.”
The book didn’t resolve itself in the way I would have wished, but it did resolve in a way that was true to the story.
So, what are the flaws? Perhaps the subject? Most North Americans have armed themselves with spam filters and skepticism enough to avoid falling prey to schemes like those portrayed in the book. I didn’t read it from an “If I’m not careful, this could happen to me” perspective, but more a “This is what used to happen to people” point of view.
I had to read this book because it won the Giller Prize. I tried to set its prize-winning status aside when reading. Was it deserving? I think so. But you should definitely give the other shortlisted books a try, too.