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.”
What keeps the boys walking is the fraternity of shared suffering, the kindness of an occasional stranger and the dream of safety and peace in Ethiopia, a magical land that has grown in their imaginations into a kind of paradise.
“We would have chairs in Ethiopia,” Valentino thinks. “I would sit on a chair, and I would listen to the radio, because in Ethiopia there would be radios under all the trees. Milk and eggs — there would be plenty of these foods, and plenty of meat, and nuts and stew. There would be clean water where we could bathe, and there would be wells for each home, each full of cool water to drink. Such cool water! We would have to wait before drinking it, because of its coolness. I would have a new family in Ethiopia, with a mother and father who would bring me close and call me son.”
Ethiopia, needless to say, falls short of their expectations, and so does Kenya. Instead of the dreamed-for new life, there is a succession of refugee camps: Valentino lives in one for nearly three years, a second for almost a year and the last, Kakuma, for an entire decade.
From time to time, Valentino thinks of trying to return home to find his parents, but realizes that the odds of surviving another trek across the war-ravaged wastes of Sudan are slim. To him and his fellow refugees, America becomes the new promised land.
“I would arrive and immediately enroll in college,” he thinks. “I would work at night and study during the day. I would not sleep until I had entered a four-year college, and I was sure I would have my degree in short order, and would then move on to an advanced degree in international studies, a job in Washington. I would meet a Sudanese girl there, and she would be a student in America, too, and we would court and marry and form a family, a simple family of three children and unconditional love.”
In time, Valentino does make it to America. His arrival is delayed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which transpire on the very day he is to depart, but the simple dream of an ordinary life continues to elude him: He becomes a crime victim, and his girlfriend is brutally murdered. Yet as told by Eggers, Valentino Achak Deng’s story remains a testament to the triumph of hope over experience, human resilience over tragedy and disaster.
WHAT IS THE WHAT: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF VALENTINO ACHAK DENG
By Dave Eggers
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