I recently finished Dave Eggers’ book, What is the What. The novel is based on Valentino Achak Deng’s life, starting in Sudan, then Ethiopia, then Kenya, then the U.S. Although it is considered fiction, many of the events occurred in Achak’s life, or were at least events typical of boys in Achak’s situation. Achak is considered one of the “Lost Boys,” those young boys (5-12 years old –ish) who walked for hundreds of miles from Southern Sudan, East to Ethiopia, amidst the brutal civil war tearing the country apart (and remember; this is pre-Darfur crisis).
The novel takes on a first person narrative from Achak’s point of view. With this, Eggers is able to use his deep understanding of how the mind works to provide, often, candid thoughts from Achak as he discovers unfathomable violence, poverty, and, at some points, opportunity. In his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius(the one other Eggers book I’ve read), a similar understanding of the mind’s blunt, yet honest, way of operating is on display, albeit in a much different context. This book also has my recommendation (despite Goodrich’s utter distaste for this offering).
The narrative is told from Achak’s telling in a current day setting. Switching back and forth from life in the U.S. and life in Africa, similarities arise between the two worlds. Addressing the ”What” of What is the What, [SPOILER ALERT] it more or less pertains to a tribal story in which, given the option, the Sudanese chose the more immediate gift of cattle, over the “What”: a higher place in this world. What follows, in Achak’s perspective, is that the Sudanese must then live their lives without the “What.”
Achak’s life, somewhat of an archetype for all Sudanese people, is pestered with abandonment, a lack of a home, and, at the core of the matter, a lack of identity. And perhaps even deeper than this feeling is that he feels a lack of existence. While there are moments where he is recognized (and humanized – times such as when he receives his passport or when he receives help from those in the U.S.), his status in the U.S. does not differ greatly from his life in Sudan. Wherever he ends up, he falls on the lowest rung of castes. Yet he, and those with him, persevere and tell their story. I think he comes to the conclusion that he does exist, despite what he has experienced in his life.
The book ends with Achak addressing the reader: “All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”