By Dave Eggers
Published October 2006
Date reviewed: May 8, 2007
Originally published in: The Daily Cardinal
When future generations pass judgment on this century, the harshest grade will most likely fall on the genocide in Africa. Decades of civil war have exterminated millions of people, reduced villages to ashen outlines and pushed entire native populations into different countries. The devastation is so vast, so all-encompassing that it is almost impossible for the human mind to conceive.
The reality is so massive that the only way to understand it is to break it down to the individual human level – which is exactly what Dave Eggers has done in his nonfiction novel “What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng.” Through the voice of a Sudanese refugee who escaped the conflict, Eggers creates a stirring, vibrant and ultimately human story of survival against the odds.
Eggers traces Valentino’s path as one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” – children who were displaced by the Sudanese civil war where both the government and rebel populations are willing to kill at the slightest mistake. Valentino and his fellow villagers march through Ethiopia and Kenya, seeking what little food and shelter is available in villages and refugee camps. Obstacles include predatory lions, starvation and the accompanying disease, and the feelings of loss that come from seeing everyone else die.
A lesser author would have turned Valentino’s story into a stereotype of heroism and determination, but Eggers – a noted journalist and author of award-winning novels such as “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” – is much better than that. Told in first-person narration, the entire novel feels like Valentino is sitting down across from the reader and detailing each struggle in a quietly introspective tone.
This personal voice is an ideal way to tell the story, as the language is unencumbered by self-important language or elaborate figures of speech. When Valentino describes his childhood experiences, he describes the thoughts that came to his mind at that moment – the first white men he sees are “the absence of a man” and the boys he travels with are mirrors for his own health.
Beyond their straightforwardness, the novel is fascinating for the humanity of Valentino. His refuge camp stories are not without hope, as he discusses his efforts to make himself useful to his various host families or to save the lives of others on the road. He can even be funny on occasion, with scenarios such as a rebel commander who always wears an absurd belt buckle or a whole classroom of Lost Boys overwhelmed by an attractive teacher – moments that are almost tragicomic when seen in the broader picture.
Valentino is not only human for the way he lightens up his stories, but for his honesty in describing his own problems and occasional ventures to the “precipice of self-loathing.” Once he has immigrated to America he is filled with guilt for seeing problems instead of praising his good fortune, and he is continually truthful about his struggles with culture shock. Even after everything he has survived, he believes ill fortune pursued him to America and perhaps spreads to others.
But despite all of his misfortunes and the horrors he has seen in his life, Valentino is never entirely broken. He wants to stay alive, wants to keep moving to tell these stories – and Eggers deserves tremendous credit for retelling them so eloquently. The world of Africa’s misfortune may be one the public has spent years ignoring, but after seeing it through Valentino Achak Deng’s perspective it is one a reader will be unable to forget.