8 July 2011

Dave Eggers: What Is the What (2006)

The full title of Dave Eggers's book is What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel. It's a fictionalized account, based on what Deng told Eggers, of the early life story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who were boys displaced from their homes during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005).

Achak is first forced to leave Marial Bai, his village in northern Bahr Al-Ghazal - which is populated by the Dinka (or Muonyjang) people - by the invading northern Arab forces. It's a kind of picaresque novel, although the narrative essentially consists of two intertwined strands: the present tense in Atlanta, Georgia, where Achak is robbed and violently attacked, and where we see the aftermath; and the past tense in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya, where Achak develops from a young boy to a young man.

In the pillaging of Marial Bai, Achak is forced to separate from his parents, and will not learn of their whereabouts until toward the end of the novel. With a growing number of boys in a similar predicament, they slowly make their very hazardous way to a refugee camp in Pinyudo, Ethiopia, where Achak lives for several years until he's forced to move on again: this time, it's civil war in Ethiopia.

Eventually, after another hazardous journey, Achak reaches another refugee camp - in Kakuma, Kenya, where he spends some years and learns that his parents are still alive. But he doesn't visit them, as he's chosen for a resettlement program in the United States. Instead, he phones his father, who orders him to accept: that is the What.

On the front flap of my copy Gayle E. Smith, Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and former Senior Director for African Affairs at the National Security Council, says the reader will discover 'more depth and insight here than in any news report or policy paper'. Certainly, it very often felt as though I was privy to insider information on the resourcefulness of the refugees in the camps.

A very powerful, enthralling read.

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