What is the What
Dave Eggers
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Buy *What is the What* by Dave Eggers online

What is the What
Dave Eggers
560 pages
October 2007
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Valentino Achak Deng’s dramatic life as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan is novelized in Dave Egger’s latest book, What Is The What. I urge everyone to go out and buy a copy of this book, for in addition to being an excellent look at the horrible hardships that these refugees went through during and after the civil war in Sudan, it presents a picture of faith and hope, of loves gained and loves lost. I would rate it very highly as a piece of literature and have no doubt it will be considered a modern-day classic. The story of Valentino’s life is an epic struggle of survival and eventual successes in the face of tremendous odds.

Valentino (a.k.a. Achak) answers his door in Atlanta only to find that in leaving Sudan, he has not left behind the violence of others. An African American woman asks if she can use his phone, claiming that her car has broken down on the street. She pushes her way past into his apartment and locks herself in his bathroom. Then a voice behind Achak says, “Stay here, Africa.” The voice belongs to the woman’s boyfriend, and they both proceed to tie Achak up and rob him. He wonders if maybe what’s happening to him isn’t a “punishment for the hubris of wanting to leave Africa, of harboring dreams of college and solvency in America.”

The male robber hits him in the mouth with the butt of his gun and tells him to shut up. Achak always wants to tell people the tale of his life, of the suffering of himself and other refugees, to bring awareness to the plight of Sudan and the Lost Boys. Even when he doesn’t tell it out loud, he speaks it in his mind – as he does in this case, to the two robbers; we, as readers, are transported back to Achak’s youth in the Sudan:

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.
What Is The What gets its title from a creation story that Valentino’s father tells him in the Sudan, one which he hears his father tell a slightly different version to some Baggara (Arabic) traders. One of the traders, Sadiq, asks Arou (Valentino’s dad) to --Tell us the one about the beginning of time. I’m always entertained by this. (throughout the book, quotations of people in Africa are preceded by a long dash, while the dialogue of people in America employ quotation marks). The tale Arou tells is one in which God presents the Dinka (monyang), his people, with two choices: “You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What.” Sadiq asks him: “What is the What?” According to Arou, God answers: “I cannot tell you. Still, you have to choose. You have to choose between the cattle and the What.” The man chooses the cattle: “They could see the cattle were God’s most perfect creation, and that the cattle carried something godlike within themselves.” The Dinka would never know what the What was, but felt they’d made a good choice. Since his father was telling this story to Arabic people, Valentino recalls a part of it that he left out on purpose: that the Arabs ended up with the What, and “this is why the Arabs are inferior.”

The choices people in general and Achak in particular make in What Is The What influence the course of Achak’s life and Sudan’s future. What the What is is a question that Achak ponders at different points in the book, believing that perhaps the What, the choice of the Arabs, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for them, and is maybe something that has given them dominance over the Sudanese people and led to the civil war devastating Sudan. Certainly, Achak and his country undergo a tremendous amount of hardships, whatever the reason, hardships that at times make Achak question the nature and existence of God. What Is The What will live with its readers for a long time to come. Besides buying the pleasure of reading a beautifully crafted story full of pathos, action and adventure, purchasing this book will have the added benefit of helping your fellow man:

All proceeds from this book will go to The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which distributes funds to Sudanese refugees in America; to rebuilding southern Sudan, beginning with Marial Bai; to organizations working for peace and humanitarian relief in Darfur; and to the college education of Valentino Achak Deng.
What could be better?

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Douglas R. Cobb, 2006

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