As his remarkable 2000 book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, so flamboyantly illustrated, Dave Eggers is a writer torn between two warring proclivities: a taste for the latest postmodern, self-conscious literary games and an ability to write genuinely moving, heartfelt narratives about real people and their very real lives.
In Staggering Genius, the tension between those two impulses enabled Eggers to recount the story of his own life — how his mother and father died within weeks of each other, and how he suddenly became a surrogate parent to his eight-year-old brother — with stunning tenderness and passion. Part emotional defense, part canny narrative strategy, the high-tech literary devices provided an unsentimental frame for the terrible events in the Eggers family’s lives, while enabling the author to earnestly excavate his most painful memories.
After two mannered books (You Shall Know Our Velocity and How We Are Hungry) in which cleverness and literary gimmickry seemed to get the upper hand, Eggers has produced What Is the What, a startling act of literary ventriloquism that recounts the harrowing story of a Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng, while reminding us just how eloquently the author can write about loss and mortality and sorrow.
A devastating and humane account of one man’s survival against terrible odds, the book is flawed by an odd decision on Eggers’ part to fictionalize Deng’s story — a curious choice, especially in the wake of the uproar over James Frey’s fictionalized memoir earlier this year. But while we start out wondering what is real and what is not, it is a testament to the power of Deng’s experiences and Eggers’ ability to convey their essence in visceral terms that we gradually forget these schematics of composition.
One of the so-called “Lost Boys” of Sudan, Valentino fled his home village, which had become caught in the crossfire between rebel soldiers and the country’s Islamic government, and walked hundreds of kilometers east to Ethiopia and eventually to Kenya in search of safety. He is one of hundreds of children who had become separated from their families: some had seen their parents cold-bloodedly slaughtered; others never learn the fates of their mothers and fathers and siblings.
During their trek, Valentino and his comrades are set upon by government soldiers, rebel soldiers, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, vultures, crocodiles and lions. They dodge bombs and mines, and face starvation, dehydration and illness. Some of Valentino’s friends go mad. One trades all his clothes for a handful of food. (“He would remain naked for six months” until the refugee camp he reaches receives its first shipment of used clothes.) Probably half of the children die along the way.
“If a boy became sick he walked alone,” says Valentino. “The others were afraid to catch what he had, and did not want to know him too well for he would surely die soon. We did not want his voice in our heads.” When his boyhood friend William K dies, Valentino digs him a shallow grave, nearly collapsing from exhaustion in the process.
“When I was finished,” he recalls, “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.”