WHAT IS THE WHAT
Valentino Achak Deng watches as two of his companions are eaten by a lion. It is night. The lion emerges from the bush, kills a boy and drags him away. No one does anything. No one tries to do anything – except not hear the boy being eaten – and the lion comes out of the bush again and eats another boy. After that, they sleep in a circle. All through the night, the boys on the outside of the circle migrate inwards, displacing others.
Acts of witness have complex effects on the reader, one of which is a sense of guilty helplessness. In his life, Valentino has experienced a good deal of helplessness on behalf of other people, and this somehow multiplies the number of acts of witness taking place. By a subtle turnabout he manages to stand in for, represent in some way, his own interlocutors: we are, What Is the What reminds us, teller or listener, all in the same boat. None of this doubling, which thrusts us back into the oral tradition and makes us question what a story – a statement of witness –actually is, would be possible without the sophisticated intervention of Dave Eggers, who in this deceptive book appears to surrender his voice to the voice of a real person.
Eight or nine years old, displaced by the second Sudanese civil war, his parents killed and his village burned by the murahaleen militias, Valentino Achak Deng finds himself among the “Lost Boys”, endless lines of starving Dinka children, mostly male, some naked, all hungry, who walked through the deserts and forests to safety in Ethiopia, preyed on by animals, disease and soldiers. He watches his friends die. He survives, though he sees and experiences things we would rather forget, and all it leads to is ten years in the wrenching conditions of the Kakuma refugee camp.
Later, in America at last, grown up, working for a qualification, trying to understand and come to terms with the food and art of his adopted nation, he is pistol-whipped during a robbery. “In my life”, he remarks, “I have been struck in many ways, but never with the barrel of a gun.” His assailant, a black Atlantan called Powder, mistakes him for a Nigerian, then, after a certain loss of temper and some wild kicking, reduces him almost carefully to unconsciousness. “When there is pleasure, there is often abandon, and mistakes are made”, observes Valentino; better to be robbed deliberately than killed by accident.
It is hard to say whether What Is the What, the result of years of collaboration between Eggers and Deng whose story this is, should be described as fiction or non-fiction. Content has overwhelmed form so completely that the book is released to become neither, existing first as a “human document” and then, paradoxically, as a pure act of writing –subtle, funny, fluid, elegant, poignantly clear and honest. The most demanding part of the task must have been to stand away from the subject matter and allow it to breathe. Eggers has been so successful at this that What Is the What acts, if nothing else, as a triumphant rebuttal of Martin Amis’s method for House of Meetings, a book in which the author’s need to add literary value tended to obscure the very facts he was writing about.
The art has gone into throwing Valentino’s voice. As a result, you receive it unquestioningly as the voice of an autobiographer. The only obviously novelistic choice has been to use Valentino’s experience of being robbed in Atlanta as a framing device for the cruelties of his life in Sudan. The ironies that spin off add to the reader’s sense of guilt at not being able to be there for the Lost Boy; but they are also the perfect compliment to Valentino’s quiet, sly, Dinka sense of humour. Not long after they have settled in the US, Valentino and his friend Achor Achor decide to watch The Exorcist. “We have an interest in the concept of evil, I admit it”, he says. The film terrifies them, and Achor cannot even stay in the same room with it. It would be a mistake to think that Dave Eggers has given up irony. What he has done is to send it deep into the text where it can do its work.