From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Valentino Achak Deng, real-life hero of this engrossing epic, was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war-the bloodbath before the current Darfur bloodbath-of the 1980s and 90s. In this fictionalized memoir, Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) makes him an icon of globalization. Separated from his family when Arab militia destroy his village, Valentino joins thousands of other "Lost Boys," beset by starvation, thirst and man-eating lions on their march to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Valentino pieces together a new life. He eventually reaches America, but finds his quest for safety, community and fulfillment in many ways even more difficult there than in the camps: he recalls, for instance, being robbed, beaten and held captive in his Atlanta apartment. Eggers's limpid prose gives Valentino an unaffected, compelling voice and makes his narrative by turns harrowing, funny, bleak and lyrical. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity-of the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval.
New York Times Notable Book
New York Times Bestseller
What Is the What is the epic novel based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng who, along with thousands of other children —the so-called Lost Boys—was forced to leave his village in Sudan at the age of seven and trek hundreds of miles by foot, pursued by militias, government bombers, and wild animals, crossing the deserts of three countries to find freedom. When he finally is resettled in the United States, he finds a life full of promise, but also heartache and myriad new challenges. Moving, suspenseful, and unexpectedly funny, What Is the What is an astonishing novel that illuminates the lives of millions through one extraordinary man.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Dave Eggers is best known for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), and here he shows that he is as adroit at telling another person's biography as he is narrating his own. Over three years, he conducted 100 hours of interviews with Deng and visited Sudan with him in "synergistic collaboration" ( Time ). Labeled as a novel, this work nonetheless has a historical basis and lends a personal face to the brutality of civil war, squalor, and the struggle for survival. A few critics questioned where Deng's story ended and Eggers's literary license began, and the book as a whole could have been better edited. While visceral and heartrending, Deng's and Eggers's joint story is ultimately a powerful tale of hope. When both People and the ever-glum Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times rave, how can one resist?
*Starred Review* In Atlanta, too-trusting Valentino Achak Deng opens his door to strangers and is beaten and robbed at gunpoint. Lying on the floor, tied up with telephone cord, he begins silently to tell his life story to one of his captors. Through the rest of his miserable ordeal, he continues these internal monologues: to the indifferent police officer who answers his 911 call; to the jaded functionary at the hospital emergency room; to the affluent patrons at the health club where he works. Deng is a Sudanese "Lost Boy," and his story is one of unimaginable suffering. Forced to flee his village by the murahaleen (Muslim militias armed by the government in Khartoum), he survives marathon walks, starvation, disease, soldiers, bandits, land mines, lions, and refugee camps before winning the right to immigrate to the U.S.--a move he sees as nothing short of salvation. Deng is a real person, and this story, told in his voice, is mostly true. Readers may weigh Eggers' right to tell the story or wonder what parts have been changed, but here a novel is the best solution to the problems of memoir. Reworking this powerful tale with both deep feeling and subtlety, Eggers finds humanity and even humor, creating something much greater than a litany of woes or a script for political outrage. What Is the What does what a novel does best, which is to make us understand the deeper truths of another human being's experience. Keir Graff
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
“[An] Astonishing story … of immerse power, emotion and even, in the midst of horror, beauty.” —Salman Rushdie
“Told with humor, humanity, and bottomless compassion for his subject. It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, transformed.” —Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner
“Lit by lightning flashes of humor, wisdom and charm. An extraordinary work of witness, and of art.” —Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review
“A moving, frightening, improbably beautiful book.” —Lev Grossman, Time
“A testament to the triumph of hope over experience, human resilience over tragedy and disaster.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"An absolute classic. Compelling, important, and vital to the understanding of the politics and emotional consequences of oppression." —Jonathan Durbin, People
“A sweet and sometimes very funny story of one boy’s coming of age. Strange, beautiful and unforgettable.” —John Freeman, San Francisco Chronicle
From the Back Cover
"Dave Eggers has done something remarkable with this book. He has managed to cross many barriers both real and artificial to tell the story of one man's tragedy and triumph in a way that emphasizes his simple humanity above the drama of his terrible situation. It is a book that shows there is no reason why geographical and cultural divides should prevent us from attempting to understand each other as citizens of this world."
--UZODINMA IWEALA, author of Beasts of No Nation
"I cannot recall the last time I was this moved by a novel. What is the What is that rare book that truly deserves the overused and scarcely warranted moniker of `sprawling epic.' Told with humor, humanity, and bottomless compassion for his subject, one Valentino Achak Deng, Eggers shows us the hardships, disillusions, and hopes of the long suffering people of southern Sudan. This is the story of one boy's astonishing capacity to endure atrocity after atrocity and yet refuse to abandon decency, kindness, and hope for home and acceptance. It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, transformed. I believe I will never forget Valentino Achak Deng."
"What is the What is a novel that possesses the best qualities of a documentary film: the conviction of truthfulness, and the constant reminder of the arbitrariness of fate, for worse and for better. By setting his story of African annihilation and survival as a story of American immigration, Eggers ensures that it belongs to us all, as it must."
--PHILIP GOUREVITCH, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
"I have been interacting with the Lost Boys since the late 1980s, from the time they were first displaced in Sudan to their arrival in the United States. I thought I had heard and seen it all. But reading Valentino's story has touched emotions in me I didn't even know I had. Dave Eggers tells the story of Sudan through Valentino's eyes, but he also elucidates the best and worst of our common humanity."
--JOHN PRENDERGAST, International Crisis Group
About the Author
Dave Eggers is the author of three previous books, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. You Shall Know Our Velocity!. and How We Are Hungry. He is the editor of McSweeney’s. a quarterly magazine and book-publishing company, and is cofounder of 826 Valencia, a network of nonprofit writing and tutoring centers for young people. His interest in oral history led to his 2004 cofounding of Voice of Witness, a nonprofit series of books that use oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. As a journalist, his work has appeared in The New Yorker. Esquire. and The Believer. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter.
From The Washington Post
Reviewed by Gary Krist "God has a problem with me," complains Valentino Achak Deng, the subject of Dave Eggers's extraordinary new novel, What Is the What. Coming from almost any other person on the planet, this lament would appear hopelessly self-pitying. But coming from Valentino, a Sudanese refugee, it sounds almost like an understatement. At a time when the field of autobiography seems dominated by hyperbolic accounts of what might be called dramas of privilege (substance abuse, eating disorders, unloving parents, etc.), What Is the What is a story of real global catastrophe -- a work of such simple power, straightforward emotion and genuine gravitas that it reminds us how memoirs can transcend the personal to illuminate large, public tragedies as well.
The book does this despite being, strictly speaking, a novel. Valentino, who survived almost 15 years of civil war and refugee-camp exile before coming to the United States in 2001, in fact does exist, but the book that purports to be his autobiography is actually a fictional recreation by Eggers. No secret is made of the fact that some of the characters in the book are composites, some episodes are invented, and much of the storyline has been reordered and reshaped for narrative effect. The result, however, is a document that -- unlike so many "real" autobiographies -- exudes authenticity.
The secret of the book's credibility lies in its author's success at excising his own oversized personality from the narrative. The voice of What Is the What -- sincere, articulate (if somewhat stilted) and immensely appealing -- has been distilled from countless hours of conversation with the real Valentino, and it bears no trace of the media-savvy postmodern ironist who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and You Shall Know Our Velocity! Such literary impersonations are not easy to perform convincingly, but aside from noticing the occasional over-sophisticated turn of phrase, I was utterly convinced by the Sudanese refugee who speaks to us in these pages.
The story Valentino tells is harrowing. Anyone who has read the newspapers carefully will know the basic outline of the crisis in Sudan in the 1980s and '90s, when an Islamist government in the capital of Khartoum attempted to subjugate Christian and animist rebels from the south. But Eggers gives this history real immediacy by filtering it through the subjective experience of a single individual. Valentino is just 7 years old when his Dinka village of Marial Bai is raided by a gang of government-supported Arab militiamen. He is able to elude the marauding horsemen, but he can only watch as his village is burned and his people are murdered, immolated or kidnapped. Unsure whether his parents are alive or dead, he joins a group of similarly bereft children -- some of Sudan's so-called Lost Boys -- and sets out on a cross-country trek to what he hopes is sanctuary in Ethiopia.
But the march itself proves to be an ordeal as horrific as the one he has just escaped. Disease, hunger, lion attacks and the depredations of rebels, raiders and unfriendly locals take a high toll on the marchers. "It is very easy for a boy to die in Sudan," Valentino observes at one point, with awful understatement. At times, Valentino believes that all he need do is stop and close his eyes for death to come.
Nor are the boys safe once they reach Ethiopia. During their march, Valentino and his friends keep their spirits up by indulging in elaborate "mythic visions" of their destination as a paradise where all their troubles will be over and they can wait out the war in luxurious tranquility. But after they arrive, the fall of the Ethiopian government turns the local river people into their enemies, and Valentino finds himself once again plunged into a hellish chaos where even the most unthreatening presence can turn suddenly malevolent:
" -- Come here! a woman said. I looked to find the source of the voice, and turned to see an Ethiopian woman in a soldier's uniform.
" -- Don't fear me, she said. -- I am just a woman! I am a mother trying to help you boys. Come to me, children! I am your mother! Come to me!
"The unknown boys ran toward her. When they were twenty feet from her, the woman turned, lifted a gun from the grass, and with her eyes full of white, she shot the taller boy through the heart."
In the end, though, What Is the What (an awkward, self-conscious title that alludes obscurely to an old Dinka creation myth) is not the unrelenting nightmare that such scenes might suggest. Eggers makes sure to give space to Valentino's less gruesome experiences, leavening the narrative with episodes -- some of them upbeat and a few even hilarious -- from his subsequent 10 years at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
But even when Valentino finally leaves Africa to start anew in Atlanta, nothing is easy for him. Education and jobs are hard to come by, and the lawless thugs of Atlanta prove to be almost as brutal as those of the Sudanese desert. "I am tired of needing help," he complains after being robbed and held captive in his own apartment. "I need help in Atlanta, I needed help in Ethiopia and Kakuma, and I am tired of it." His frustration is understandable. Still lost but no longer a boy, Valentino really wants nothing more than the opportunity to make his own way, unmolested by the upheavals of ethnic and racial conflict.
Unfortunately, these upheavals show no signs of ending soon. The recent crisis in Darfur (just the latest chapter in Sudan's troubled history) suggests that the paroxysms of African politics will be creating Valentino Achak Dengs for years to come. And while balanced, objective journalism may do a better job of explaining the complexities of such situations to a distracted world, autobiography, with its limited but urgent perspective, could be what's needed to make us truly take notice. Fictional or not, this book, at its heart, is a cry for acknowledgment of a very real, ongoing tragedy. "How blessed are we to have each other," Valentino reminds his American hosts at the close of this simple, sad and important book. "How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist."
Reviewed by Gary Krist
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door. I have no tiny round window to inspect visitors so I open the door and before me is a tall, sturdily built African-American woman, a few years older than me, wearing
a red nylon sweatsuit. She speaks to me loudly. "You have a phone, sir?"
She looks familiar. I am almost certain that I saw her in the parking lot an hour ago, when I returned from the convenience store. I saw her standing by the stairs, and I smiled at her. I tell her that I do have a phone.
"My car broke down on the street," she says. Behind her, it is nearly night. I have been studying most of the afternoon. "Can you let me use your phone to call the police?" she asks.
I do not know why she wants to call the police for a car in need of repair, but I consent. She steps inside. I begin to close the door but she holds it open. "I'll just be a second," she says. It does not make sense to me to leave the door open but I do so because she desires it. This is her country and not yet mine.
"Where's the phone?" she asks.
I tell her my cell phone is in my bedroom. Before I finish the sentence, she has rushed past me and down the hall, a hulk of swishing nylon. The door to my room closes, then clicks. She has locked herself in my bedroom. I start to follow her when I hear a voice behind me.
"Stay here, Africa."
I turn and see a man, African-American, wearing a vast powder-blue baseball jacket and jeans. His face is not discernible beneath his baseball hat but he has his hand on something near his waist, as if needing to hold up his pants.
"Are you with that woman?" I ask him. I don't understand anything yet and am angry.
"Just sit down, Africa," he says, nodding to my couch.
I stand. "What is she doing in my bedroom?"
"Just sit your ass down," he says, now with venom.
I sit and now he shows me the handle of the gun. He has been holding it all along, and I was supposed to know. But I know nothing; I never know the things I am supposed to know. I do know, now, that I am being robbed, and that I want to be elsewhere.
It is a strange thing, I realize, but what I think at this moment is that I want to be back in Kakuma. In Kakuma there was no rain, the winds blew nine months a year, and eighty thousand war refugees from Sudan and elsewhere lived on one meal a day. But at this moment, when the woman is in my bedroom and the man is guarding me with his gun, I want to be in Kakuma, where I lived in a hut of plastic and sandbags and owned one pair of pants. I am not sure there was evil of this kind in the Kakuma refugee camp, and I want to return. Or even Pinyudo, the Ethiopian camp I lived in before Kakuma; there was nothing there, only one or two meals a day, but it had its small pleasures; I was a boy then and could forget that I was a malnourished refugee a thousand miles from home. In any case, if this is punishment for the hubris of wanting to leave Africa, of harboring dreams of college and solvency in America, I am now chastened and I apologize. I will return with bowed head. Why did I smile at this woman? I smile reflexively and it is a habit I need to break. It invites retribution. I have been humbled so many times since arriving that I am beginning to think someone is trying desperately to send me a message, and that message is "Leave this place."
As soon as I settle on this position of regret and retreat, it is replaced by one of protest. This new posture has me standing up and speaking to the man in the powder-blue coat. "I want you two to leave this place," I say.
The powder man is instantly enraged. I have upset the balance here, have thrown an obstacle, my voice, in the way of their errand.
"Are you telling me what to do, motherfucker?"
I stare into his small eyes.
"Tell me that, Africa, are you telling me what to do, motherfucker?"
The woman hears our voices and calls from the bedroom: "Will you take care of him?" She is exasperated with her partner, and he with me.
Powder tilts his head to me and raises his eyebrows. He takes a step toward me and again gestures toward the gun in his belt. He seems about to use it, but suddenly his shoulders slacken, and he drops his head. He stares at his shoes and breathes slowly, collecting himself. When he raises his eyes again, he has regained himself.
"You're from Africa, right?"
"All right then. That means we're brothers."
I am unwilling to agree.
"And because we're brothers and all, I'll teach you a lesson. Don't you know you shouldn't open your door to strangers?"
The question causes me to wince. The simple robbery had been, in a way, acceptable. I have seen robberies, have been robbed, on scales much smaller than this. Until I arrived in the United States, my most valuable possession was the mattress I slept on, and so the thefts were far smaller: a disposable camera, a pair of sandals, a ream of white typing paper. All of these were valuable, yes, but now I own a television, a VCR, a microwave, an alarm clock, many other conveniences, all provided by the Peachtree United Methodist Church here in Atlanta. Some of the things were used, most were new, and all had been given anonymously. To look at them, to use them daily, provoked in me a shudder--a strange but genuine physical expression of gratitude. And now I assume all of these gifts will be taken in the next few minutes. I stand before Powder and my memory is searching for the time when I last felt this betrayed, when I last felt in the presence of evil so careless.
With one hand still gripping the handle of the gun, he now puts his hand to my chest. "Why don't you sit your ass down and watch how it's done?"
I take two steps backward and sit on the couch, also a gift from the church. An apple-faced white woman wearing a tie-dyed shirt brought it the day Achor Achor and I moved in. She apologized that it hadn't preceded our arrival. The people from the church were often apologizing.
I stare up at Powder and I know who he brings to mind. The soldier, an Ethiopian and a woman, shot two of my companions and almost killed me. She had the same wild light in her eyes, and she first posed as our savior. We were fleeing Ethiopia, chased by hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers shooting at us, the River Gilo full of our blood, and out of the high grasses she appeared. Come to me, children! I am your mother! Come to me! She was only a face in the grey grass, her hands outstretched, and I hesitated. Two of the boys I was running with, boys I had found on the bank of the bloody river, they both went to her. And when they drew close enough, she lifted an automatic rifle and shot through the chests and stomachs of the boys. They fell in front of me and I turned and ran. Come back! she continued. Come to your mother!
I had run that day through the grasses until I found Achor Achor, and with Achor Achor, we found the Quiet Baby, and we saved the Quiet Baby and, for a time, we considered ourselves doctors. This was so many years ago. I was ten years old, perhaps eleven. It's impossible to know. The man before me, Powder, would never know anything of this kind. He would not be interested. Thinking of that day, when we were driven from Ethiopia back to Sudan, thousands dead in the river, gives me strength against this person in my apartment, and again I stand.
The man now looks at me, like a parent about to do something he regrets that his child has forced him to do. He is so close to me I can smell something chemical about him, a smell like bleach.
"Are you-- Are you--?" His mouth tightens and he pauses. He takes the gun from his waist and raises it in an upward backhand motion. A blur of black and my teeth crush each other and I watch the ceiling rush over me.
In my life I have been struck in many different ways but never with the barrel of a gun. I have the fortune of having seen more suffering than I have suffered myself, but nevertheless, I have been starved, I have been beaten with sticks, with rods, with brooms and stones and spears. I have ridden five miles on a truckbed loaded with corpses. I have watched too many young boys die in the desert, some as if sitting down to sleep, some after days of madness. I have seen three boys taken by lions, eaten haphazardly. I watched them lifted from their feet, carried off in the animal's jaws and devoured in the high grass, close enough that I could hear the wet snapping sounds of the tearing of flesh. I have watched a close friend die next to me in an overturned truck, his eyes open to me, his life leaking from a hole I could not see. And yet at this moment, as I am strewn across the couch and my hand is wet with blood, I find myself missing all of Africa. I miss Sudan, I miss the howling grey desert of northwest Kenya. I miss the yellow nothing of Ethiopia.
My view of my assailant is now limited to his waist, his hands. He has stored the gun somewhere and now his hands have my shirt and my neck and he is throwing me from the couch to the carpet. The back of my head hits the end table on the way earthward and two glasses and a clock radio fall with me. Once on the carpet, my cheek resting in its own pooling blood, I know a moment of comfort, thinking that in all likelihood he is finished. Already I am so tired. I feel as if I could close my eyes and be done with this.
"Now shut the fuck up," he says.
These words sound unconvincing, and this gives me solace. He is not an angry man, I realize. He does not intend to kill me; perhaps he has been manipulated by this woman, who is now opening the drawers and closets of my bedroom. She seems to be in control. She is focused on whatever is in my room, and the job of her companion is to neutralize me. It seems simple, and he seems disinclined to inflict further harm upon me. So I rest. I close my eyes and rest.
I am tired of this country. I am thankful for it, yes, I have cherished many aspects of it for the three years I have been here, but I am tired of the promises. I came here, four thousand of us came here, contemplating and expecting quiet. Peace and college and safety. We expected a land without war and, I suppose, a land without misery. We were giddy and impatient. We wanted it all immediately--homes, families, college, the ability to send money home, advanced degrees, and finally some influence. But for most of us, the slowness of our transition--after five years I still do not have the necessary credits to apply to a four-year college--has wrought chaos. We waited ten years at Kakuma and I suppose we did not want to start over here. We wanted the next step, and quickly. But this has not happened, not in most cases, and in the interim, we have found ways to spend the time. I have held too many menial jobs, and currently work at the front desk of a health club, on the earliest possible shift, checking in members and explaining the club's benefits to prospective members. This is not glamorous, but it represents a level of stability unknown to some. Too many have fallen, too many feel they have failed. The pressures upon us, the promises we cannot keep with ourselves--these things are making monsters of too many of us. And the one person who I felt could help me transcend the disappointment and mundanity of it, an exemplary Sudanese woman named Tabitha Duany Aker, is gone.
Now they are in the kitchen. Now in Achor Achor's room. Lying here, I begin to calculate what they can take from me. I realize with some satisfaction that my computer is in my car, and will be spared. But Achor Achor's new laptop will be stolen. It will be my fault. Achor Achor is one of the leaders of the young refugees here in Atlanta and I fear all he needs will be gone when his computer is gone. The records of all the meetings, the finances, thousands of e-mails. I cannot allow so much to be stolen. Achor Achor has been with me since Ethiopia and I bring him nothing but bad luck.
In Ethiopia I stared into the eyes of a lion. I was perhaps ten years old, sent to the forest to retrieve wood, and the animal stepped slowly from behind a tree. I stood for a moment, such a long time, enough for me to memorize its dead-eyed face, before running. He roared after me but did not chase; I like to believe that he found me too formidable a foe. So I have faced this lion, have faced the guns, a dozen times, of armed Arab militiamen on horseback, their white robes gleaming in the sun. And thus I can do this, can stop this petty theft. Once again I raise myself to my knees.
"Get the fuck down, motherfucker!"
And my face meets the floor once more. Now the kicking begins. He kicks me in the stomach, and now the shoulder. It hurts most when my bones strike my bones.
"Fucking Nigerian motherfucker!"
Now he seems to be enjoying himself, and this causes me worry. When there is pleasure, there is often abandon, and mistakes are made. Seven kicks to the ribs, one to the hip, and he rests. I take a breath and assess my damage. It is not great. I curl myself around the corner of the couch and now am determined to stay still.