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A Journey in Search of the What
on 11 January 2009
What is the What is the result of a collaboration between Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee, and the writer Dave Eggers. Part autobiography and part fiction it tells the story of Achak Deng's escape from war torn Sudan, via Ethiopia and Kenya to the USA.
The title page describes What is the What as the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng and then it goes on to add a novel by Dave Eggers. In my view the book should not be read as a novel rather it should be read more as a post modern autobiography. I say this because if What is the What is read as a novel, for example, you will find that it lacks plot or character development. I label it a post modern autobiography because it rambles from place to place with little sense of time. I must say that this approach fits well with Valentino's experience.
It is clear that Deng wants to tell his story. He enjoys telling stories sometimes embroidering them. It is therefore fitting that Eggers should collaborate with Deng and weave an autobiography in a highly fictionalize form. Indeed, one of the things that make What is the What interesting is Eggers quiet exploration of the issue just what it means to tell a story. Deng the narrator and main subject of the story is constantly concerned about his memory of events and the embellishments of events in order to persuade and cajole people to one's own perspective.
Deng places himself and his story in the context and experience of a group of young boys who came to be know as The Lost Boys of Sudan. Some of these boys were part of the Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA). The Lost Boys fled their home, they were orphaned, alone and knew not where they were going. Eventually some of the lost boys were sent to the USA, Deng among them.
Achak Deng begins his story some years after settling in the USA. The opening scene is set in his home in Atlanta. He is being robbed by two assailants. It soon becomes apparent that Deng will tell his story mainly from this setting with long flash backs to his African experience. He narrates by imagining that he is having a conversation with one of his assailants and other people he encounters. From these opening passages what we get is the juxtaposition of kindness and evil. This will remain a theme throughout the book.
Given Deng's brutal experience in Sudan and the fact that now he has settled in the USA he undergoes another form of brutality the book raises the question about which people or country can be called civilized. Deng's story is a journey of discovery of hardships in Africa to exploitation in the USA. It is also a story about the meeting of two different cultures. As these two cultures meet, Sudanese and American, Deng manages through Eggers to reveal differences with a sense of humour. In one passage Deng tells a story of two Lost Boys in the USA who buys tampons because they look beautiful and then displayed them on their coffee table.
The story is emotionally wrenching and heart breaking. One cannot help but feel for the Lost Boys as they made their perilous journey. These boys endured great hardships and faced the ultimate peril, death. This is how Deng describes part of his experience of observing death: "Eventually a dying boy would find a tree, and he would sit against the tree and fall asleep. When his head touched the tree, the life in him would fall away and his flesh would return to earth."
What is the What is soul searching and downright honest. The book is at times a heart wrenching and painful read. It depicts extreme and unbelievable suffering. It is a powerful story of resilience and endurance in the face of adversity. However, I had a major problem with the book. There are long passages of minor trivial detail and repetitive information such as boys being taken alive by lions. It is a long book that rambles along on trivial issues at times, and I think it would have been a better book if events had been better selected and edited.