Friday, May 22, 2009
What Is the What
Being a Dave Eggers fan, I was found myself interested in picking up another one of his books. I was quite reluctant to pick up his newest book What Is the What. I'm not very knowledgeable or very interested in Africa, so this book was not very appealing to me. However, I did come to like it because it taught me a lot about the Sudan that I really had no concept of before.
What Is the What is really titled What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a novel. The prologue to the book explains that Eggers met up with the real life Deng and wanted to tell his story. He didn't know how to actually portray it though, so he interviewed Deng exstensively on his life story. In order to avoid much criticism and to be allowed more freedom with the story, he decided to make it a novel so he could add dialogue and perhaps dramatize certain characters and relationships. However, most of the novel is true and based on real situations that Deng experienced.
What Is the What is about Deng's life in Sudan during their civil war. Deng wakes up one morning as a young boy when his village is being attacked (it is eventually destroyed). He is separated from his family (never to see them again) and follows a group of boys (called the Lost boys). They walk to Kenya for what seems like months. Many boys die along the way from starvation--they simply lay against the trees and slip into a deep sleep. They scrounge for food, finding eggs in trees or eating carcasses. They are attacked by hungry mosquitos and are even pecked at by vultures and other surrounding animals. They have to fend for their lives, and they're only BOYS.
Deng eventually makes it to a refugee camp in Kenya where the novel discusses his venture into school and adolescence. But what a different life it is over there. It really makes you appreciate what we have over here and how they see us. It's really interesting to hear how Deng first saw white men. He was told that they were so white because they communicated with God and the heavens. They could communicate to him and make good things happen. How crazy. And this is when he was young, in the 1980s. How insane.
Deng eventually makes it over to America where the story continuously flashes back from his present, living in Atlanta, to his life in the past in the Sudan. He is robbed, beaten, and held hostage. When he finally contacts the police, they do nothing for him. It's pretty sad. Deng then goes into his trek to get a college degree and the difficulties of getting accepted. No colleges will accept him and they keep making up excuses as to why. Even though his life is hard here in America, he still faces different problems, and these problems are much better than those he faced in Africa.
Eggers has a gift for storytelling: Even though I didn't have much interest or background knowledge on the subject, he was very engaging. He provided a lot of background knowledge that I didn't have while telling a very interesting story. His flashbacks were great because they kept me hooked while providing further detail on his past. He makes the characters very likeable, especially Deng himself. Eggers has received some criticism for making Deng's character quite similar to his own persona, but I didn't mind very much. Deng was such an honorable man that your heart goes out to him. I thought he was portrayed very well, and it would be interesting to read interviews with the real man (I'm sure that I will in the future).
I just felt so sad for Deng most of the time. He faced hardship after hardship after hardship, but finally he was able to leave Africa and come to America, which was his dream. He used education to get there, which is really inspiring. He lost his parents and his famiy; he lost his young boy friends; he lost his lover in America from a murder (his musing on the changes of African men to America is astounding, on how they soon become violent and petty); he lost his possessions from robbers; he was not taken seriously by the police; he was denied many college admittances. It's just depressing, but he's such a good man. The system just doesn't work for him, and he doesn't really have a place to call home. I feel bad for the man, but he is now getting publicity out there for other Lost Boys like him. I hope that more can be done for them!
For those interested in the Sudan and Darfur, this would be a great novel to pick up. I think this book would be great for someone to read who was like me and didn't know too much about Africa. It was fascinating from a learner's standpoint. Eggers is a great read, no matter what the content or subject matter.
I highly recommend this book--Eggers is one of the best writers of our generation. He needs to be widely read!
So what do you think of What Is the What?