What Is the What is a harrowing book to read, but the most difficult thing is remembering that it is a novel, written by Dave Eggers, and not, as its subtitle claims, The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. In the Preface, the quite factual Mr Deng tells us that the book
is the soulful account of my life: from the time I was separated from my family in Marial Bai to the thirteen years I spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to my encounters with vibrant Western cultures, in Atlanta and elsewhere.
One's first reaction to the news that Mr Eggers "concocted this novel" from a mass of stories that Mr Deng told him over several years is to want to know just what it was that the novelist made up. What are the fabrications? Which events happened as reported here — and which did not? This understandable desire to winnow fact from fiction fades, however, as one passes into the book's mighty force field. For although the tone of What Is the What may be novelistic, the book itself is nothing less than an epic.
In its barest outlines, Valentino's is the story of a boy whose home town, Marial Bai in southern Sudan, is overrun by Arab horsemen. The marauders have been armed by an Islamic government in Khartoum that seeks nothing less than the ethnic cleansing of Sudan's Dinka tribes. The son of a prosperous shopowner and one of his several wives, Valentino flees Marial Bai without knowing who if anyone in his family has survived the ferocious attacks. Soon he joins the trek of so-called Lost Boys. Too young to fight, and not suitable for the kinds of slavery into which their sisters are sold, the boys cross southern Sudan in great locust-like clouds, unwelcome almost everywhere they go until they cross the border into Ethiopia, where they find temporary respite until a change in government spells a second exile. After years of existence in the refugee town of Kakuma, in northwest Kenya, where he has his first encounters with the ways of the greater world — building a friendship, for example, with an ill-fated Japanese aid worker — Valentino finally makes his way to the United States, which, although it may be the end of Mr Eggers's narrative thread, is by no means the end of Valentino's journey.
The epic that What Is the What resembles most is the best epic of them all, The Odyssey. It, too, follows a reluctant hero on a series of perilous adventures that is occasionally punctuated by unexpected marvels. It, too, features a protagonist who seems determined to learn everything that he can about the strange worlds that he encounters. His restless but disciplined intelligence is his most salient characteristic: to the extent that What Is the What is about Valentino Achak Deng and not about his tribulations, it is the story of a mind in the world, and that is the source of the book's great strength. Without the grip of Valentino's character — we feel it right from the start — What Is the What would be one damned thing after another, a nightmare of loss and the struggle for survival. Instead, it is a rousing monument to human indomitability.
A doubly rousing monument. Framing the horrors of Valentino's childhood — horrors all the more horrible for being so common, even — since the Holocaust — familiar — are the young man's troubles in the course of several days in Atlanta. As havens go, Atlanta certainly leaves a great deal to be desired, and What Is the What is fully stuffed with food for thought about this country's aptitude for humanitarian follow-through. Mr Eggers's narrator tells his story not to us but to a series of Americans — mostly, and not without irony, African-Americans — several of whom wish him harm. The most pitiable of these is a boy called Michael, whose grim job it is to sit watch over the tied and gagged Valentino after he has been mugged in his own apartment. Michael would never, one fears, benefit from Valentino's wisdom; even if he were really to hear his captive, the carapace of bad training and ill fortune would prevent his understanding a word of it. We ourselves may wonder at the optimism of Valentino's ironbound humanity.
Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person I encountered these last difficult days, and every person who has entered this club during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don't want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.
We may ask just how dishonest — or in any case how deviant from standard practices — it would have been for What Is the What to have been billed as "as told to" nonfiction. Dave Eggers deserves immense credit for giving Mr Deng's highly rebarbative tale the archetypal, almost mythic shape that holds our attention on aesthetic grounds without shaming us for the shortcomings of our humanitarian generosity. Beneath the attractive arrangement of Valentino's ghastly experiences lies the evil that has befallen hundreds of thousands of people, not just in Sudan and not just in Africa, but throughout the world, wherever the hateful idea of nationality has been permitted to dictate the course of affairs. (The United States, currently embroiled in a nasty and disgustingly self-pitying persecution of "illegal immigrants, is no exception.) What Is the What transforms and redeems just one of countless stories. Valentino Achak Deng may be an exceptional person, but his vicissitudes are not. (February 2008)
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press