A biographical novel traces the story of Valentino Achak Deng, who as a boy was separated from his family when his village in southern Sudan was attacked, and became one of the estimated 17,000 "lost boys of Sudan" before relocating from a Kenyan refugee camp to Atlanta in 2001.
As the story unfolds in the present, Valentino takes his encounters with strangers in America and uses them to mentally reflect on his experiences in Africa. By silently telling others his story (which translates as a complete narration to the reader) he seeks their understanding, their sympathy and their grace and as a reader I couldn't help being captivated by his turbulent journey. There is joy in his childhood in a remote village where a bicycle is a prized and wondrous possession. There is fear in his flight across the wilds of Sudan narrowly avoiding lions and slower killers like disease and starvation. There is desperation in his life at the refugee camp dreaming of something better for himself and wondering if his family has survived as well. There is awkwardness to his arrival in America and the culture clash of living as an outsider in a new homeland.
What is the What is a highly emotional and moving book. Eggers has expertly blurred the lines between fact and fiction to create a fully realized and seamless narration of hardship and endurance in the life of a refugee. With an overarching theme of compassion for others in the face of evil, Valentino Achak Deng's story is immensely powerful. This is a book that will stay with you, will keep you thinking and and reflecting on it, long after the back cover is closed.
Valentino's story is heart-breaking. He witnessed violence, and cruelty at such a young age. His own village was attacked by militia, with villagers brutally murdered. During the walk across Sudan, boys routinely died of malnutrition or other illnesses. Conditions in the refugee camps were appallingly bad. And it shocked me to realize that these refugee camps were not at all temporary; that a conflict can exist for so many years that the camp becomes the only life its inhabitants know.
This was a difficult book in many ways, but extremely well-written. Highly recommended.
The story follows the young narrator, variously known as Achak, Valentino and Dominic, after his Dinka village is attacked and he joins the ever growing contingent of Lost Boys as they walk to Ethiopia for refuge. Along with the ever present threat of warfare, the journey is fraught with all manner of dangers, from lions and crocodiles to disease and starvation. Even reaching the refugee camp does not provide sufficient safety for its forty thousand residents as the camp is attacked and thousands die as they flee, many finally settling in Kakuma, a large refugee camp in Kenya.
The story floats back and forth in time from the present when Achak is living in Atlanta, Georgia, where he has just been assaulted and burglarized, to the many years he spent striving to create a life for himself amid seemingly endless adversity. The story, with all its cruelty and loss would almost be too grim to bear, but Eggers’ ability to capture the small happy moments of life provides a much needed balance. These small moments of daily life also provide a window into a life so vastly diverse from the average American’s that it is otherwise hard to comprehend.
The “What” of the title refers to a Dinka legend about the creation of man where God gives man a choice of a cow, which can sustain him, and the “What” – the unknown – that may be better, but may also be worse. As the legend goes the Dinka man makes the correct choice in choosing the known thing, the unglamorous but sure thing. At the young age that Achak hears this, he interprets the story as representing man’s greed for always wanted something better than he already has, never being satisfied. But by the end of the story, when Achak has doubts about whether he should leave for America or return to his long-lost family in Sudan, his father advises him to grasp the What – to stop being a victim, to reach for the unknown in the hopes that it will bring a brighter future.
The recounting of this life is compelling, emotionally disturbing and uplifting, and not easily forgotten. It feels like it should be required reading for all.
But something was missing for me in my experience of this book.
I always have a difficult time enjoying novels that are basically biographies; I appreciate knowing what is real and what is fiction.
Also, I didn’t enjoy Egger’s technique of having the protagonist (Deng) tell his story to the many various people in his vicinity or those on his mind. I’m not sure why as I love the storytelling form. But it didn’t work for me here. I felt distance vs. intimacy.
And when it came down to it, while I was interested in the man and the events in his life, the book felt too long to me. That’s never a good sign. Usually, I hate it when a book ends and I wish it was longer and I had more to read. Maybe better editing would have helped?
I know that I’m in the minority here; most seem to love the book. Maybe in retrospect I will or maybe I my views will shift after my book club discussion.
One word to describe this book, without hesitation: masterpiece. Dave Eggers has talent that everyone should experience at least once in their lives, and Achak’s own voice was prominent throughout the story. I was thoroughly engrossed. I was expecting it to be good, but it is genius. It is full of wild imagination, heart, tempers, death, and souls. These boys – the ones who lived – are now men, most of them living in America, leading a new life. This story, Achak’s story, begins with Achak’s life in Atlanta, Georgia, in the present tense. This was a bit of a turn-off for me at first…I’m never one to get into books that are written in the present tense. It has to be done right, I’ve said. And boy was this done right. The present tense was kept skillfully, consistently. In the beginning, Achak is robbed. And as he is being robbed, and kept hostage in his own home, he begins to tell himself, in the past tense, the tale of his life in Marial Bai, the genocide, the thousands of miles they walked to Ethiopia, and so on. The story slips in and out of this, back and forth, present to past, past to present. It’s like a perfect braid, each piece different and carefully chosen to make the braid whole.
The biggest thing that struck me about this book, now that it is done, is this: In the beginning, I did not know Valentino Achak Deng. I saw a man in his appartment, being robbed. I was interested, but I did not know this man. In the end, however, I felt an overwhelming sense of a journey finished. On referencing to things in the past, I felt a part of this man’s life. I knew who he was, where he came from and what he’d been through. I knew his family, his friends; I understood his weaknesses and I praised his strengths. I was connected with this man whom I had never, ever met. I will always know and remember and love Valentino Achak Deng, now that I have read his story.
The horrors to be found in this story are unheard of here in priveleged America. We have horrors, often, but in a way, it is different from Achak’s experience. It is cut off, perhaps. It is not a genocide. What we see every day is Paradise compared to Achak’s experience. There is shooting, killing, murdering, talk of rape that was not written down in detail in the book, and disturbing injuries that the people experienced. One man had his face ripped off, and was walking around, mad, terrorizing anyone who was near. The Faceless Man, Achak called him.
Nicknames, and just names in general, play a huge part in this story. The Faceless Man is only one of them. Tv Boy, really named Michael. Tonya and Powder. There is the Silent Baby. There is Moses, Dut, William, Amath, Tabitha, Achor Achor. And then, there was William K. Oh, William K. He is by far my favorite character. He was the annoying boy in their Dinka village, a boy who would stretch the truth so far that no one would believe him. While Achak tried to be kind to him, he would have never thought that one day he’d be so excited to reunite with him. But that’s exactly what happened. While walking from one place to the next, trying desperately to reach Ethiopia alive, William K. makes his way to their large group. Achak is glad to have someone familiar by his side, no matter who it is. And William K. hasn’t changed a bit; his stories are still as tall as the sky. This comes in handy, when the boys begin to go mad with hunger and fatigue; William K.’s fantastical stories of a grand and princely life in Ethiopia help Achak to dream, to push forward, to stay alive, no matter how wrong William K. is.
Along with the horrors of the book comes incredible love, power, and lessons to be learned. We see Achak’s love for a girl named Tabitha, his desire to reconcile himself with his captors’ boy who is forced to watch over him, his experiences with American culture, efficiencies, and deficiencies. He has new friends, old friends, friends are leave or die. Friends who are murdered. In the end, we see the comparison between cultures, the stark differences, and the intense similarities. It is amazing and humbling, both ways.
But it is worth it. It is worth every sentence, every word. Every letter. This story emanates power, and the strong voice of a man who walked, discouraged and surrounded by death and decay, and came out on the other side.
(For teens and parents of teens: the content of this book is R-rated, as far as violence and language go. Gory scenes and F-bombs are only half. The sexual content can be rated PG-13. It only shows up in the last third of the book and isn’t explicit: some content involves Achak mentioning cultural issues, differences, and practices; others involve Achak and his friends going through puberty and wondering what to do with their changing bodies.)
Dave Eggers more or less avoids cheapening his subject, weakening his message or losing credibility for the duration of a book comprised of stories that would tempt a narrator with less integrity to deploy every variety of manipulative, sensationalist, suspenseful and tear-jerking prose. The result is an unflinching, straight-forward, trustworthy and revealing testimony. I have no doubt that “What is the What” has communicated more deeply about the reality of Sudan’s recent atrocities than most other products in any media. And I consider this more of an ethical accomplishment than a literary one. Modern pragmatist philosophers (such as Richard Rorty) contend that one of the best ways to act ethically is to work towards expanding the circles of empathy of as many people as you can. They suggest doing this by telling stories from new perspectives that familiarize and humanize marginalized and oppressed peoples and by creating ethnographies that do the same work on a more scholarly level. A book like this is supposed to raise awareness, to sensitize people and to encourage action. To the extent that this book makes it harder for people to be idle or disinterested in the face of circumstances like those in the South of Sudan, it is successful; to the extent that it prompts people to take action about such circumstances, it is impressively so.
Now, I’m not thrilled with Eggers’s decision to play a little game with the genre—calling this both an autobiography and a novel—and I’m not convinced by the reasons that are given for his doing so. Nor am I entirely comfortable with the narrative tactic of making Achak Deng directly address different parts of his story to whichever American seems to be disappointing him in the contemporary portion of “What is the What.” As readers quickly discover, the chapters of Deng’s tale that transpire in Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya are related by him (in his mind, somewhat accusingly) over the course of less than two days to Americans with whom he is interacting. It is all rather obvious that the Americans he addresses are just the cogs in the machinery of our populace, the people who refuse agency and responsibility, the people who are passive accomplices to the neglect of people like Deng—whether they struggle at dead end jobs, making change at our supermarkets or whether they struggle to survive in crude structures built of trash amidst vulnerable refugees on the far side of earth. It’s an interesting tactic, clearly built to abolish narrative distance and to refresh a sense of accountability; but it can seem a bit forced.
I don’t think the prose warrants excerpting or stylistic analysis, nor am I tempted to highlight any particular episodes of Deng’s life. There are charming bits to the story, therapeutic moments of good fortune and humanity and there are scarring accounts of human behavior at its worst. The book is worth reading for its even keeled navigation of these moments, for the insight it offers into life in a refugee camp and for the mirror that it holds up to the United States as it fails to approximate the ideal of “sanctuary.” Respect to Dave Eggers for donating the profits he could have made from this endeavor to the cause of other Lost Boys from Sudan.
Having heard Eggers speak about this work at some length, I knew fairly early on that Eggers struggled with this work and with all he wanted to convey--at points, I'm afraid this showed through. There were many points when I felt as if the structure as a whole was somewhat jarring. Time was a particular issue for me. I often struggled to find any sense of When something was happening, or the timeline as a whole regarding events before and after. It may well be that this sense of discombobulation was intended--but it worked against the story and characters for me, and became a frustration at various points, but most particularly in the first half of the book. I was able to finish the second half of the book more easily, but some of my earlier frustration did hang over. Additionally, Valentino was portrayed absolutely realistically. While I admire the intent and realize that it is perhaps necessary to convey the intent of the story...there were times when I wished I knew a bit less, or a bit more.
Overall, I can't say why I don't have a more positive reaction to this book, even now. It was not a particularly difficult or easy read, and it was very engaging when I picked it up--one of those books that you aren't necessarily drawn back to, but which engages you when you do pick it up. For someone who wants a look into what's been going on in Sudan, I wouldn't advise starting with this book--I'd advise perhaps Not on Our Watch by Don Cheadle and John Prendergast, or certainly The Translator by Daoud Hari. In this case, I felt fairly detached from the story, and from the characters at many points; and while I appreciate the story, it didn't touch me or reach me in the same way as other books touching on the same subject matter have. This is worth reading, don't get me wrong--but if you're looking for a basis of knowledge or for further understanding, I'm not sure this is a good choice. As a work of literature though, it does succeed and engage for the most part.
The following is from a website recommended to us by the president of the book club, Ronald Eaton. It clears up my concerns about the veracity of Deng's tale. "Deng is a real person, and this story, told in his voice, is mostly true. It can be difficult to separate the book from its circumstances: readers may weigh Eggers' right to tell the story or wonder what parts have been changed—or even which observations are Deng's and which are Eggers' observations of Deng. But here a novel is the best solution to the problems of memoir." My question is, would the memoirs of Burroughs, Frey, and Walls fit in this category of better described as a novel than a memoir?
This is gripping reading and well-crafted. To this reader, Ashak's present-day travails were as awful as his times in Africa. He is treated with a strange combination of charity and neglect (he waits 17 hours in the ER and finally walks home!) His sponsors mean well but don't really equip him for American life. His fellow Sudanese immigrants suffer similar fates: lives of drama and violence. (His story of his 'love' Tabitha is especially moving.)
Some quotes, yeah they're all over the map and don't really capture the story in any way, but I liked them....
"My father, who had many wives, rejected the new religion on these grounds, and also because to him the Christians seemed preoccupied with written language. My father and mother could not read; not many people his age could. - You go to your Church of Books, he said. - You'll come back when your senses return.
"Humans are divided between those who can still look through they eyes of youth and those who cannot. Though it causes me frequent pain, I find it very easy to place myself in the shoes of almost any boy, and can conjure my own youth with an ease that is troublesome."
"There were many who assumed that the country would be split into two, the north and the south, because the two regions had been fused under the British, after all, and because the two sides shared so few cultural identities. But this is where the British sowed the seeds for disaster in our country, which are still being harvested today."
"When I was finished, I told William K that I was sorry. I was sorry that I had not known how sick he was. That I had not found a way to keep him alive. That I was the last person he saw on this earth. That he could not say goodbye to his mother and father, that only I would know where his body lay. It was a broken world, I knew then, that would allow a boy such as me to bury a boy such as William K."
"Do you know that it was George Bush, the father, who found the major oil deposits under the soil of Sudan? Yes, this is what is said. This was 1974, and at the time, Bush Sr. was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Bush was an oil person, of course, and he was looking at some satellite maps of Sudan that he had access to, or that his oil friends had made, and these maps indicated that there was oil in the region. He told the government of Sudan about this, and this was the beginning of the first significant exploration, the beginning of U.S. oil involvement in Sudan, and, to some extent, the beginning of the middle of the war."
"I cannot count the times I have cursed our lack of urgency. If ever I love again, I will not wait to love as best as I can. We thought we were young and that there would be time to love well sometime in the future. This is a terrible way to think. It is no way to live, to wait to love."
"As the land passed by, I saw my parents, my approximated visions of them, on every hill and around each bend. It seemed as logical as anything else that they would be there, on the road ahead of us. Why couldn't they be here, why couldn't we will ourselves together again?"
"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."