NOT TO BE MISSED
"Je ne viens p@s à vous par hasard", a novel by Adaobi Tricia NWAUBANI
Paris: Presses de la Cité, 2011. (464p.).
Translated into French by Séverine Quelet. Original title: "I do not come to you by chance", 2009.
Ce compte rendu en français
"I Do Not Come to You by Chance" by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is interesting and topical. It brings to light the murky world of cybercrime and "419 scams". Entertaining and thought provoking, this modern tale of contemporary Nigeria evokes the life of Kingsley, a brilliant young man promised a bright future, but eventually drawn to the dirty world of Internet fraud because he cannot get a job and so, finds himself unable to help his ailing father in his hour of need.
Upon turning the last page of the novel, it is hard to decide if Kingsley and his mentor Cash Daddy are some kind of charitable rogues, or unscrupulous villains defrauding gullible victims the "mugus" without a hint of compassion. In the context of a country riddled with corruption, deprived of basic amenities and providing no meaningful employment for its youth, straying from conventional codes of ethical conduct seems justified enough. But is it, and what is the price to pay?
Had Kingsley been a self-centred trickster indifferent to the hardship of his kin, his demeanour would have been much easier to condemn outright. But he is not that kind of person. By nature, he is a dutiful son who worked hard at school, achieved well at university, helped his parents as best he could, and remained truthful to the girl he dearly longs to marry as soon as he got a job. But a job he never got, and things begin to unravel: his girlfriend leaves him, his father is hospitalised and, with no money in the kitty, the future looks bleak. It is at this juncture that the dirty money of Uncle Boniface alias Cash Daddy begins to look far less repugnant to Kingsley and his mother: doctors' fees have to be paid and Cash Daddy, although ostracised by his family, is more than happy to come to the rescue.
In contrast with Kingsley, Cash Daddy is rough, loud and impulsive. He never finished school, but has been well versed in the ways of the world from an early age, thus the adolescent larrikin soon became a multi-millionaire fraudster, surrounded by bodyguards, driving flash cars and splashing money around. Like his friends World Bank, Money Magnet, Long John Dollars and other "419" fraudsters, Cash Daddy is certainly not a role model for the Nigerian youth of today; yet, as Kingsley soon finds out, nor is he the irredeemable profiteer cast out by his law-abiding parents. He is a crook, but not one contributing to the bankruptcy of the local economy, or accumulating money for the sake of it and preying on the country's have-nots. On the contrary, while millions of impoverished families have been abandoned by officialdom, Cash Daddy invests large sums of money in the local economy, bribing underpaid officials, helping family and friends, subsidising community projects such as schools, orphanages, digging wells, putting lights on the streets and even building a First Aid Centre in his mother's home-town. "In his own special way, my uncle was an honest man" (p.203], Kingsley says. And when Cash Daddy decides to run for Governor of the Province, he is able to muster considerable support from both disaffected public servants and the informal sector, which he never abandoned to their plight. Cash Daddy's sense of morality is not delineated by common definitions of good and bad. It is based on practicalities and runs contrary to Kingsley's parents strong belief in the value of education, "real" jobs, hard work and honesty. Cash Daddy believes in outcomes and he cannot understand those who stick to airy-fairy ideals when it is time to fight fire with fire. The law of the jungle is not a panacea, though, and Kingsley's mother is one of the many educated have-nots who put honour ahead of money. She is determined not to let contingencies impinge on the core values that ought to be at the centre of people's behaviour. She is therefore not impressed by her son's first successes in the world of the "419"; she is only interested in him getting a proper job and refuses his gifts. But irrespective of her determination to stick to her sense of morality, it is the "dirty money" of her brother, Cash Daddy, that pays for her husband's funeral, the education of her son's siblings, her medical expenses...
Kingsley's conundrum is made more difficult because he can empathise with his mother's idealism while admiring the entrepreneurial vigour of his uncle. From an early age, Kingsley has dreamed of working as a scientist, discovering things and becoming famous for his inventions; but with no "real job" coming his way, let alone jobs that could lead to interesting research activities, how reasonable would it be to pursue his parents' chimera? The odds were stacked against him, the dice loaded against law-abiding citizens, therefore shouldn't one act accordingly? That does not mean one has to deceive everyone indiscriminately, but rather that one has to play the system to one's advantage. Money is to be found wherever it lies.
Cash Daddy's swindling is not ethical but attuned to the wide-spread practice of paying bribes and kickbacks to secure big deals with government officials. "Mugus" can be isolated individuals in search of love, and small investors chasing big returns; they also can be large companies prepared to do whatever it takes to outdo competitors and secure major contracts. And while one can feel the anguish and despair of a well-meaning lady robbed of her savings by a smooth operator, it is much easier to forget one's strong held beliefs when greedy investors, and lawless middlemen doing the dirty work of unscrupulous companies, are caught at their own game.
The novel explores the world of the "419", yet it might well be argued that the main theme of Nwaubani's "I Do Not Come to You by Chance" is not so much cyberfraud but rather the equivocal nature of morality. In a different context, the high values held by Kingsley's parents would have easily won the hearts and minds of people attached to justice, hard work, compassion, equality... but as the fate of many Nigerian's families shows, unyielding morality only brings hardship and disappointment. Trapped in a world dominated by money and self-preservation, Kingsley has no chance to marry the woman he loves or to engage in meaningful scientific work. Nor has he any chance to offer a good education to his children just as long as he remains broke.
In contrast, Cash Daddy's loose morality has brought him not only money, but also the promise of a better future for his children: one where they will have the power to pursue their dreams and choose the kind of life they want to live. Money opens doors, not only in Nigeria, but everywhere where money talks: exclusive clinics, five star hotels, prestigious universities... endless is the list of those keen to accommodate the needs of the Cash Daddy's of the world and their progeny. Thus Uncle Boniface's short visit to Britain where "his eldest son was enrolled in an exclusive boarding school in Oxford [and] even won an award, Cash Daddy beamed proudly". "The children all looked like distant cousins of Princes William and Harry. Graceful and illustrious. There was not the slightest trace of that untamed look on their face, the look that diverse currencies nor worldly comforts had quite erased from their father's countenance [...] Interesting these offspring of Uncle Boniface, the money-miss-road were the aristocrats of tomorrow" (pp.185-186).
Kingsley and Cash Daddy are at the centre of the narration, but many secondary characters live at the periphery of the main plot. They all add to the enjoyment of reading: the "mugus" falling for the elaborate schemes devised in the CIA, that is the room occupied by Cash Daddy's scammers and their support staff; Ola, Kingsley's well-educated first love, who has to chose between a penniless lover with no prospects and a rich businessman she does not love; the free-spirited Merit and the forceful Auntie Dimma; those blaming the "419" for all the rot destroying the country and those, like Kingsley's brother, who are quick to forget the origin of the money financing their life of luxury. Nothing is the way it should be, but life goes on, bumpy and unpredictable: that is what makes this book such a good read.
Internet users continuously bothered by a flow of bogus business proposals, spurious cries for help and even usurpation of one's identity, are rightly fed-up with this new form of criminal activity, but "I Do Not Come to You by Chance" goes beyond knee-jerk reaction to cyberfraud. It is neither a condemnation of "419" scams, nor an apology for the scammers. Rather it is an interesting take on Nigerian life at the beginning of the 21st century, a realistic portrayal of the difficult situation leading many law-abiding individuals to stray from rigid principles. Pressured into choosing between the kind of person one would like to be and what one ought to do in order to survive, many people have to look sideways. That oblique look at morality challenges the idea of universal good and evil, possibly leading readers to ponder to what extent sacrificing ones' ideals is worth doing in the name of need, financial, familial or otherwise. An interesting read indeed.
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but quotes and page numbers are from the original English paperback edition published by Orion Books in London in 2010.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities