Dave Eggers. "What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng; A Novel."

: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng; A Novel

The title is weird. The first four words make no sense. And then, is this an autobiography by Achak Deng or a novel by Dave Eggers?

In the Preface Deng tries to sort it out. It's an autobiography, "the soulful account of my life," the harrowing story of Deng's flight from the holocaust in Sudan, under constant threat of bombings, beasts, and human murderers, struggling to survive on whatever he could find to eat.

But Deng didn't write it down. He told his stories over the course of years to Eggers who shaped it into a "novel," "approximating" Deng's voice, sewing together the events of Deng's life. "The book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle. To struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope, and my belief in humanity." (p. 5)

I find this moving but unsatisfying. However, in the light of the horrors of the conflict in Sudan, presented to us endlessly by daily newspapers, and much more vividly by this account, irritation at the mode of the account seems unimportant. Still, it would have been nice if the two of them had decided to edit Deng's oral account and left it at that. The fictional element is distracting. This is particularly so in the way the story is constructed.

Eggers uses a frame narrative, opening his "novel" with a grotesque story of the invasion of Deng's house in Atlanta by a family of plain old American crooks. He is tied up and left helpless in the house, guarded by a little boy who has learned not to respond to his family's victims. This is the launching point for Deng's recall of his escape from Sudan. It is, I suppose you could say, an appropriately ironic frame: to set the flashback to random and wholesale violence in Africa within a story of vintage American violence. It is, of course, enraging. The American thieves are brutal, stupid, taunting; they are beyond contempt. The point is clear. The dogged stupidity of human beings, the pleasure they take in cruelty, is universal. Africa, America, it's the same everywhere.

I leave my objections to the "novel" there. The story of Deng's escape is vivid and terrifying, sustained in spite of the fact that the flashing back and forth from Atlanta to the Sudan goes on for some time.

The escape story is an Odyssey in reverse, fleeing from home, unable to go back to it, living through adventures that are more horrible by far than any Homer invented: for instance, a long line of boys moving through the jungle in complete silence so as not to be detected, and picked off and carried away one-by-one by prowling lions. Home, village life before the war, is evoked vividly, so that the anguish of losing home, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, the aching despair of never getting back to them, never goes away.

Meanwhile the story of the thieves goes on. Eventually they leave. Eventually Deng's roommate returns. They call the police. Hours later a policewoman arrives, takes a few notes. They go to the hospital to see to the wounds Deng had suffered. Hours and hours. Nothing works. Africa, Atlanta. It's all a Kafkaesque nightmare.

The ending is desperate with optimism:

I will reach upward. I will attempt to do better. I will not be a burden upon those who have helped me too much already. I will always be grateful for what pleasures I have enjoyed, what joys I have yet to experience. I will take opportunities as they come, but at the same time I will not trust so easily. I will look at who is at the door before opening it. I will try to be fierce. I will argue when necessary. I will be willing to fight. . . . I will live as a good child of God, and will forgive him each time he claims another of the people I love. (p. 473)

Read More: Sudan

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