WHAT IS THE WHAT
The Autobiography of Valentine Achak Deng
by Dave Eggers, © 2006
McSweeney’s, San Francisco, publisher; Hardback: 475 pp
This book is part of McSweeney’s “Voices of Witness Series,” which began with Serving Justice: America’s Wrongly Convicted and Exonerated, published in ‘05, followed by Voices from the Storm in ’06.
Dave Eggers, author of — among other things — A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, has given us another extraordinary book. One might, perhaps, call it a documentary novel.
What is the What is written in the voice of Achak Deng, a young man of the Dinka people, who became one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan. (Deng is in fact a real person, a friend of Eggers).
The book tells the story of his wanderings from his home village of Marial Bai in southern Sudan, when government troops (Arabs) from Khartoum descended on the village. Separated from his parents, he joined with other youngsters to walk to Ethiopia, some thousand miles away, enduring unimaginable hardships en route, preyed upon by man and beast and starvation and disease. Once there, he was settled into a camp for the displaced, only to be chased back to the border later on, when the Ethiopian government changed hands.
This time the boys walked to Kenya, where they were again placed in a camp, and Deng spent many years there before being able to immigrate to America.
According to the preface of this book, it qualifies as a novel because not all of the incidents which are recounted actually happened to Achak Deng, although all are true events witnessed by him.
Eggers has taken Deng’s raw material and ordered it into a novel both uplifting and heartbreaking. It reaches far beyond a mere recounting, and brings the reader a story of bravery, determination, and loyalty in the midst of chaos.
And the chaos does not stop with Deng’s immigration. A good part of the novel is told in flashback, while Deng is tied up by burglars on the floor of his own Atlanta apartment.
Withall, this story is not without humor and moments of delight. It is a paean to the human spirit which can grow and thrive in the face of incredible deprivation. Let us hope that America does not let Deng and the other Lost Boys down.