What is the What by Dave Eggers

“What is the What” by Dave Eggers

When is a novel not a novel?  When it’s an autobiography.

“What is the What” is subtitled: “A Novel.”  But it does not matter where truth ends and imagination begins.  The story of Valentino Achak Deng sears its way into your senses, and one’s belief is by no means suspended.

Valentino calls it “the soulful account of my life.” Told in a clear, precise style, cataloguing a stream of deprivation, despair and horror, this book is indeed a journey of the soul.  Valentino Achak Deng runs, staggers, falls, rises, swims, shuffles, struggles, hungers, rides, keeps on walking away from his devastated village in southern Sudan – all the way to an apartment in Atlanta, Georgia.  As he observes, his life has been one straight line; no turning back allowed, although at times he tries.  His spirit shines through.

The book begins and ends in the United States: in the opening chapter, Valentino is the sad, fierce victim of a robbery.  At the end, he is filled with hope and embraces his new life.  “I will live as a good child of God” he says (he clings to his Catholic beliefs); “I will reach upward.”

Valentino Achak Deng is a Lost Boy.  He is a Dinka from the persecuted south (not to be confused with Darfur), oppressed by the corrupt Khartoum regime hundreds of miles from his village.  We are introduced to him as a young man, meeting confusing and unexpected obstacles as a recent immigrant to the U.S.  As he lies tied up on his own living room floor, he begins to tell his story, in his thoughts personally addressing (as he often does) his uncaring captors.

Valentino was seven years old, growing up happily in Marial Bai, a village known for its thriving market; admiring a new bicycle, helping his father in his shop.  There were small warning signs, and then a sudden and terrible chain of events that precipitated him and a growing number of boys (and some girls) into a headlong flight from everything they had ever known.

There are almost unimaginable horrors along the way.  The girls of the village are tied up and carried away into slavery on the horses of the raiding murahaleen (the Arab tribesmen who did Khartoum’s dirty work).  Valentino talks to a soldier with no face left.  He leaves a new young friend to sleep under a tree, without realizing he has died overnight.  Lions stalk and prey on the boys as they walk at night in the tall grasses.  A plane drops bombs on the boys, a slowly moving target: most under twelve years old, guided by a twenty year-old.  They are so hungry they climb trees and eat live young birds in their nests.

The simple narrative is lit up with vivid splashes of color.  There is the sun’s yellow of his mother’s dress as she walks through the fields. Red blood stains the white dress of a young woman put to the sword by a militiaman who is trying to abduct her.  A violent grey rain falls in a landscape of brown rivers and tan-colored sand.  Tabitha, the woman he loves, descends an escalator in a shopping mall in a bright pink shirt, smiling.  There is, too, the terrifying black of the Sudanese night, filled with strange sounds, through which the young boys run, blindly.

The story is not unremittingly grim: life is not like that.  There are moments of amazing, unlikely humor and glimpses of happiness.  As Valentino arrives at the Kenyan refugee camp, there is even the chance of something approaching a normal life.  He goes to school, gets a job, and one by one the boys’ names appear on lists: they are to go to New York, and from there to twelve different cities.  There is great kindness, and great indifference, as he and the other boys, scattered across the United States, begin their new lives.

Oh, and by the way, what is the What?  Dear reader, that is a mystery that you will have to unravel yourself – if you can.

Author Note: Dave Eggers grew up in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.  He is the editor of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house in San Francisco.  In 2002, Eggers opened 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring lab for high school students in the Mission District of San Francisco; other branches opened in Brooklyn, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Boston.  Eggers’ students help him edit the annual “The Best American Nonrequired Reading,” a collection of fiction, essays, humor and journalism.  In 2004 Eggers co-founded the Voice of Witness, a series of books using oral history to illustrate human rights crises around the world.  “Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives,” by Peter Orner, is the third in the Voice of Witness series on human rights, focusing on illegal immigrants.

Valentino Achak Deng set up a foundation in 2006 with the proceeds from “What is the What.”  Helped by Dave Eggers and colleagues from the Sudanese diaspora, he is building an educational complex in his home village of Marial Bai, which is still trying to recover from war.  The school is now complete and full of students – boys AND girls! See the Foundation’s fascinating and detailed website at http://www.valentinoachakdeng.org/.  And go out and buy the book! For more on Eggers’ own projects, go to: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/;http://www.826national.org/; andhttp://www.voiceofwitness.com/index.php.

Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng at the school in Marial Bai
Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng at the school in Marial Bai, which is now complete

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