Saturday, May 15, 2010

What Is The What - Dave Eggers

2006; 535 pages. Awards : 2009 Prix Medicis Etranger. Full Title : What is the What - the Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. New Author for me?: No. See here. Genre : Fictional Autobiography; Modern Literature. Overall Rating : 6½*/10.
As a small boy, Achak Deng's life changes forever when the Arab murahabeen ravage his Dinka village in southern Sudan - raping, killing, looting, burning, and kidnapping. What Is The What tells his story of fleeing with thousands of other boys - the "Lost Boys of Sudan" - to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, and finally after 14 years in these camps, his coming to America and his sturggles to adapt to a new culture.
The horrors and tragedy Achak endures along the way are staggering. Death looms in many forms - Arab militiamen; Sudanese army helicopters and planes; Ethiopian bandits; hungry lions and crocodiles; malaria, dysentery and other diseases; starvation and exposure to the elements in the desert; and in an ironic fimale, from an assault & robbery at his Atlanta apartment. Through it all, a boy's hope shines through, if only because the alternative is to give up, lay down, and die.
What's To Like...
Eggers emphasizes that this is a work of fiction, and that it's also a collaborative telling of Achak's life story. I suspect it is actually taken from the combined experiences of a lot more Lost Boys than just Achak, but Eggers' writing skills create a seamless narrative. Paradoxically, the book flip-flops between the present-day assault and Achak mentally recounting his African experiences to his assailants. But this literary style works.
Eggers tells the story from the inside of Achak's head. You get to see the thoughts of a small boy as he struggles with incomprehensible hardship. Eggers/Deng present an even-handed view of the Lost Boys - they are neither saints nor savages. They overcome incredible ordeals, but they also learn how to milk the Humanitarian Aid workers, they succumb to various vices (especially gambling) when they make it to the US, they fight among themselves, and they sometimes turn on the samaritans who try to help them.
Kewl New Words...
Not many. Subsumed : to be included in something bigger. Monyjang : what the Dinka call themselves. Literally, "man" or "man of all men".
God said, "You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What." My father waited for the necessary response.
"But..." Saliq said, helping out. "What is the What?" he said, with an air of theatrical inquisitiveness. ...
"And God said to the man, 'I cannot tell you . Still, you have to choose. You have to choose between the cattle and the What.'"
(pg. 62)
"Look at it this way," he said. "There are dorms here. There are young girls, some of them only seventeen years old. You know what I mean?"
I did not know what he meant.
"Your application says you're twenty-seven years old," he said.
"Well, picture some white suburban family. They're spending forty thousand dollars to send their young blond daughter to college, she's never been away from home, and the first day on campus they see a guy like you roaming the dorms?"
In his opinion, he had explained everything he needed to.
(pg. 473)
By many we have been written off as a failed experiment. We were the model Africans. For so long, this was our designation. We were applauded for our industriousness and good manners and, best of all, our devotion to our faith. The churches adored us, and the leaders they bankrolled and controlled coveted us. But now the enthusiasm has dampened. We have exhausted many of our hosts. We are young men, and young men are prone to vice. (pg. 475-76)
Whatever I do, however, I find a way to live... (pg. 535)
If you are unfamiliar with the plight of the southern Sudanese, What Is The What will open your eyes and tug at your conscience. But for all of its merits, this book at times dragged for me. Probably because this is not a genre I particuarly enjoy.
It is a heart-wrenching tale, and you may come away feeling guilty about your relative affluence and life-of-ease compared to Achak's. But I don't have a well-developed sense of guilt, and I usually read to be entertained, educated, or (less often) inspired, not to have my heart torn out. Maybe I've seen one too many commercials where Sally Struthers implies I'm pathetic if I don't pick up the phone right now and sponsor an African child.
Nevertheless, What Is The What generally gets rave reviews, so I'm in the minority on this one. If you like books like The Kite Runner, you'll probably love WITW. 6½ stars from me, but YMMV.

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