Review of What is the What by Dave Eggers

ImageIt’s not very often you read a book that really changes your perspective on the world, but this was one of those books.  Now admittedly, I tend to stick my head in the sand when it comes to foreign affairs.  We have so many tragedies at home on a daily basis, how can I wrap my head around the civil wars, massacres, even genocides that happen in so many countries?

But of course we shouldn’t close our eyes to those things, even when there’s little we can do to help.  I read this book to learn, and learn I did.

This is an unusual book because it’s presented as a novel by Dave Eggers, yet it’s really an autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng.  In a Reader’s Guide posted on Valentino’s website, Eggers explains the reason it was written as fiction.  First, they wanted it to be in Valentino’s voice, but his English wasn’t strong enough to write the story.  Second, because he was very young when most of the events of the book happened, it wasn’t realistic to think his story could be considered strictly factual.  Third, in order to humanize the suffering of Sudan’s people, they felt it necessary to write creatively (for example by inventing dialogue).

In my opinion, they succeeded at what they set out to do.  First and foremost, their goal was to tell Valentino’s story and raise awareness of the plight of the South Sudanese.  This book really brought that story to life, in a way that was devastating but also inspiring.

The book tells the story of the Second Sudanese Civil War, a conflict that took place in the 80s and 90s, between the Sudanese Government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army.  Eggers explains that the Government is primarily the Arabic population of the North.  The Southern population of the Dinka people were mostly enslaved or killed.  This is the story of the Lost Boys, children who were orphaned during the war and walked hundreds of miles to find refuge.

I lifted this description from Valentino’s website:

The conflicts between northern and southern Sudan are often understood through their historical roots: centuries of exploitation and slave-raiding by the “Arab” north against the “African” south, followed by Britain and Egypt’s imperialist meddling. Arab tribes first arrived in Sudan from Upper Egypt and across the Red Sea during the Middle Ages, and colonial occupation began in the nineteenth century. However, it is impossible to explain Sudan’s recent conflicts from any single angle or with any simple terms. While religion, race, economic exploitation, and colonialism are all major elements in the crisis, none of these factors fully explains the situation.

Valentino is a young boy when he’s torn from his family and forced to run for his life.  He ends up with the “walking boys”, a group of boys who are being led across Sudan to safety in Ethiopia.  These boys walked hundreds of miles in horrible conditions to get out of the country alive.  As they walk, Valentino sees close friends die of starvation, disease, and murder. There are thousands of boys, walking in different groups, and when one boy drops, the others just have to keep going.

This book is vivid and graphic, but Eggers balances out the devastation with the occasional positive moment of people helping each other any way they can.  But even that can be devastating, because seen through Valentino’s eyes, he never knows when someone is going to give him food or fire a gun at his head.  He experiences both.  Yet through it all he maintains an optimism in human nature that’s naïve but believable.

One of the most striking (and thought-provoking) aspects of this book is Egger’s contrast between the dangers of living in the U.S. with the dangers of life in Sudan.  The boys in the book spend years dreaming of moving to the United States, yet life as a refugee in the U.S. is far from easy, and he’s provided with mentors and a support network for a while.  The book begins with Valentino opening his apartment door in Atlanta to a woman who needs to make a phone call – only he ends up robbed, beaten, and tied up on the floor.  Valentino wonders why it suddenly feels like life in Sudan was safer.

What I appreciated about this book was that it really put the events of Sudan in a context I could understand.  And that’s saying something.  Eggers uses a lot of “fictional” techniques to help the reader understand, like having the walking boy’s leader explain to Valentino the conflict between the Northern and Southern Sudanese (the Arabs and the Dinka).  I can describe it best by saying it reminded me of the movie Titanic, where James Cameron spends a lot of time having his characters explain how the ship works and what went wrong.  It feels a little forced but you need the information.

Eggers effectively puts the events in Sudan in a global context, explaining that the Islamic extremists actually sheltered Osama bin Laden during this time period and then he ties that to the events of September 11.  Similarly, Eggers writes a lot about aid workers who helped the refugees, and the impact of basketball star Manute Bol (also Sudanese) on the boys.  He also explains how the policies of other countries like Britain have impacted the war in Sudan and its likely outcome.

In the end, what gives this book such a punch is the voice of Valentino.  Whether fact or fiction, Valentino is absolutely someone you’ll root for.  Sometimes you think he’s going to conquer the world, and then you realize just how hard it is for him just to survive each day, whether in Sudan or the U.S.

Reading this book, I found myself looking up information about Sudan and wanting to know what happened between the time the book was published (2007) and today.   I also wanted to know how this book has impacted Sudan, and what happened to Valentino.  This is a book you’ll read and then look for a way you can help.  Valentino’s Foundation, or Eggers’ Voice of Witness site, will give you plenty of ideas.

Thanks again to Giraffe Days, for prompting me to open my mind by reading about other countries.  This was an excellent book and one I recommend highly.  It’s also my first book by Eggers, and I plan to read more.

  2 comments for “Review of What is the What by Dave Eggers

  1. March 7, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Fictionalizing Valentino’s story is such an interesting technique, but it obviously worked. I’ve been following what has been going on in Sudan, but I think it always gives it more impact when you have a face and a voice to put in the middle of it.

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