Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Dave Eggers - What is the What (Penguin 2006)

Dave Eggers' new book, 'What is the What' seems to have been knocking around for a while in various incarnations, either through McSweeneys or a non-existent paperback, and has finally landed. Once again, Eggers deals with real-life issues, bearing his liberal soul for an emotive piece of work. On the outset, this is nothing to do with Eggers though. This is the oral history of Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of the Sudan genocide and now a political speaker and activist on the future of Sudan.

It follows Deng, in first person, flipping back and forth between the present and snapshots of the past as he tries to escape Sudan and America, both juxtaposed perfectly for the readership. There are occasions where Deng feels anonymous in America, ignored and forgotten, like he was as a Lost Boy in Sudan, and so he telepathically relays his story to a series of strangers throughout the book as he deals with the fallout of his house being burgled. We learn how we arrived at this point in America. We see his life in Sudan, quiet, peaceful, removed from the outside world, before invaders and a largely unpersonified force tears apart his village. He spends the rest of the book on the run, either by himself, expecting horrendous forces, strange men and women who want to care for him for nefarious purposes and the horrors that lurk in the jungles, before joining thousands of other Lost Boys walking, walking out of Sudan to Ethiopia where they hope to wait out the conflict and eventually return home. As he walks though, home becomes the Maguffin, disappearing entirely and taking on a mystical force. He encounters old and new friends along the way, settles in a camp in Ethiopia for while before having to decamp to Kenya where he is placed in another refugee camp, and then eventually, what he hopes is the promised land, America. His experiences of America lead him to question where his home is and whether the Americans even want him to build a home there.

He has to endure atrocity after atrocity and yet refuse to abandon decency, kindness, and hope for home and acceptance. This is a highly sensitive book, one I read in chunks, so rich and heartbreaking was its emotional core, so vividly descriptive and debilitating was its view of the horrors Deng has experienced. Eggers is sensitive to the source material and is able to tell the story in a moving and honest way, unflinching yet firmly rooted in the boy's experience and avoiding clunky political comment. This is a story of the human heart, of triumph over adversity, and of one boy's struggle to find his way home, wherever it may be. Highly recommended, highly highly recommended to anyone who thinks Sudan's problems begin and end with Darfur. This is heavy heart-wrenching stuff, but truly worth reading.

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