Swans Commentary » swans.com December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008  



On The Dinka Express
Dave Eggers's What Is The What, The Autobiography Of Valentino Achak Deng


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Dave Eggers: What Is The What, The Autobiography Of Valentino Achak Deng, San Francisco, McSweeney's, 2006, ISBN: 1-932416-64-1, 475 pages.


Humans are divided between those who can still look through the eyes of youth and those who cannot. (Page 10)


(Swans - December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008)   Dave Eggers sashayed on to the literary scene in 2000, Frisbee in hand, with A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius. It dealt with orphans taking responsibility for each other in a world where parents were only a nostalgic memory. The playful inventiveness and confident informality of the writing was young and fresh. The peculiar, winning mood mixed the exhilaration of a launch into life with a sense of loss that couldn't be shaken off. The memoir deserved its success and makes it easier not to hold Eggers's flimsy second book, a novel, against him. You Shall Know Our Velocity, 2002, romped around the world to no great effect. In What Is The What, Eggers brings his mutually concerned adolescents together again, only this time they are black Dinkas from the Sudan.

What might seem a giant step from the prosperous Chicago suburb and San Francisco to the Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya is no distance at all in Eggers's sensibility. Growing up without parents remains his subject and an understanding of children his forte. To orchestrate his view on this larger stage he chose a collaborator. Valentino Achak Deng furnishes the events and emotions of his own life, and Eggers puts them through his personal filters and diverts them into stories. Of course it's a bastardized approach and could be dismissed as ghosting in a lesser writer using less affecting material. But Eggers is at home midstream between memoir and fiction and makes the mixture work, sketching a wide and compelling canvas. (He described the troubled gestation of the project in an interesting article in the London Guardian of May 26, 2007.)

Essentially two stories unfold. The first tells through Deng, who was one of them, how the "Lost Boys of the Sudan" came into being. The second, again with Deng's life up front, tells how the Boys make out in their American exile. Eggers avoids a straightforward chronological account and lets Deng fish the story out of his memory in flashbacks that regularly take center stage for long stretches. This makes for a strong and well-defined narrative voice. Deng's personal character, his society of origin, the violence he has known, and the rupture that brought him into modernity all come through in his words of acquired English.

Once Eggers has established his narrative voice and its modus operandi he has to sit Deng down somewhere and give him something to do outwardly while sorting out his memories. He also has to give us sufficient information to make sense of an historical situation that's complex even if seen only from Deng's viewpoint.

Letting Deng speak from his present home in Atlanta, Georgia, isn't without awkwardness. At one point Deng has been robbed by two fellow Atlantans wiser in the ways of the new world than he. Tied and gagged he has to spend a day on his apartment floor waiting for release. In this uncomfortable position he gives us one man's version of modern Sudanese history. We would like to tell him to relax, perhaps to take a nap. We can look up the facts in an encyclopedia. Later, in hope of treatment in an Atlanta hospital, he has a long wait that he spends again returning at length to matters of Africa. The hospital visit turns out fruitless, and we feel Deng should have cut out for home without waiting. We could have got our information elsewhere and saved the author his subterfuge.

All this makes for a long, loose, and baggy book, quite outside the norms of the svelte modern novel of aesthetic intent. But we should remember that A Heartbreaking Work showed the same tendencies, minus the history, plus West Coast lifestyle antics. This is clearly the kind of novel that suits Eggers's talents. He could argue, with reason, that the mingled strands propel the reader forward and make for a richer texture. For our purpose here of grasping what actually happens, however, we can disentangle Deng's story from memory and set down each strand on its own.

Deng's troubles begin in Marial Bai, southeastern Sudan, in the mid-1980s. He's six and his father, a well-off Dinka, owns two general stores and six wives. The elder Deng, a classic neutral, has nothing against the Islamists in Khartoum. Nor does he favor the rebellion that the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) wages against them. All the same, when the SPLA take his goods by force, the Khartoum government sees him and indeed all of Marial Bai as its enemy. The army comes in helicopters and shoots everyone in sight.

Deng's family flees to the other store in another town. But returning to check out Marial Bai they get caught in an onslaught of the Murahaleen. These are Arab raiders on horseback that serve Khartoum as a proxy army, taking their rewards in loot and slaves. There has always been mutual provocation between the Dinkas and their Arab neighbors over disputed grazing land. But it wasn't until the government armed the Arabs with modern weapons that they attacked the Dinkas. In the event, many are killed, Marial Bai burnt out, and Deng's parents are lost track of. Little Deng escapes into the woods.

The child is on his way to becoming one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan. Dispersed victims come together and walk toward Ethiopia. The SPLA has regrouped there with Ethiopian government support. The hardship of the walk through jungle and desert is unimaginable. Children are devoured by lions, go mad, or drop dead from thirst and starvation. The Dinka villages passed through are often hostile. The Murahaleen make sporadic attacks. The SPLA offers little protection and is itself a peril in that it entices or grabs boys to be soldiers.

In six weeks and many a macabre and picaresque incident, Deng's thinned-out band reach the Nile and then its tributary the Gilo, which they have to swim despite crocodiles. Ethiopia proves not to be the Land of Canaan that Deng imagined. The group stops at Pinyudo, and the sudden halt sees many of the boys' bodies give out entirely. Soon a refugee city springs up with adults and families. There's a strict class system with the exploited unaccompanied minors at the very bottom. Amongst them a further discrimination operates based on clothes. Says Deng: "I was lucky to be considered upper-middle-class, with one shirt and two shoes and a pair of shorts." (Page 234)

He spent three years at Pinyudo. In the last stages the SPLA took over despite international supervision and began to force boys into the army. Deng was saved from being a boy soldier only by the fall of Mengistu, the Ethiopian President. The new rulers in Addis Ababa attacked the SPLA and drove the forty thousand refugees of Pinyudo back to Sudan in fear of their lives.

Another perilous walk began, this time to escape the Sudanese army. The refugees went south to Kakuma in Kenya. A camp sprung up there with the arrival of ten thousand boys. Deng would spend ten years at Kakuma. It was a desolate arid spot but there was basic food, schooling and a trace of civic organization. Refugees never stopped arriving and soon there were three cities in the remote wasteland. Deng went through a parody of growing up. He had foreign pen pals, belonged to a drama club and became a Youth Leader. An international aid consortium hired him as assistant to a Japanese official. News came that his parents were still alive, but a trip home was too dangerous to undertake. He put all his hope in being one of the four thousand boys from the camp who would be admitted to the United States.

Eggers has, of course, intertwined his stories: Deng in Africa and Deng in America. He has shown a storyteller's gift in keeping each of them moving with recurring spasms of drama, which is no small feat over well-nigh five hundred pages. The final segments of each story grow briefer and more urgent. In Kenya Deng has unaccountably been made to wait for his American flight a couple of years while others with less impressive curricula precede him. At last he's taken to a Nairobi residence in view of immediate departure.

But the events of 9/11 stop everything, except the continual arrival of boys from Kakuma on the first leg of their trip to America. Three hundred are crammed into the residence built for a hundred. Conditions deteriorate. Boys sleep on the floor and fight over insufficient food. The Kenyans, who themselves have suffered a terrorist attack on the US embassy in Nairobi, are jumpy and surround the residence with armed guards, sealing the doors. It's like being back in a refugee camp with the addition of TV sets that repeatedly show the Twin Towers coming down.

Five years later in America, Deng has reached a low point. After being robbed and beaten he hasn't been able to get medical care. He cleans himself up and goes in to his job as receptionist at a health club. The members he checks in all have a cheery word and a perfunctory smile for him. But they only increase his alienation. He resumes his habit of addressing them silently in his head. Deng will never stop telling his story -- that story is who he is and all he has.

He thinks over his American years. They began with a splash: the meeting with Angelina Jolie and Jane Fonda for the Foundation and the Atlanta Hawks game attended by the Sudanese en masse; the generous sponsors that welcomed him into their families as if to prove their open mindedness; the network of Lost Boys around America that kept in touch sharing the thrills of discovery. High too were hopes of admittance to a good university. He only needed a few more credits at a community college. But time wore him down. So did filing fabric samples, hauling television sets, sweeping tinsel up in a Christmas-themed shop and butchering animals.

The truth was he no longer wished to depend on sponsors, no matter how boundless their tolerance. They weren't his family. As for the Sudanese American network, after a while the other Lost Boys only reflected his own failures. He was sick of Dinkas like himself. They seemed born to be needy. Then there was Tabitha his girlfriend in Kakuma who had embraced modernity in Seattle. Another Sudanese boyfriend murdered her, a very American event that would never have happened in Sudan where a simple beating would have sufficed. Deng finally got the registrar of a good college to speak candidly to him. The man reminded him that he was twenty-seven years old. "Well, picture some white suburban family. They're spending forty thousand dollars to send their young blond daughter to college, she's never been away from home and the first day on campus they see a guy like you roaming the dorms." (Page 420)

Deng's burden of loss strangely resembles that of Eggers's orphans in A Heartbreaking Work. It has settled on the Lost Boy like a weight he will never be free of. His family and way of life are gone. Death hovers ever near. He's jumped a century to an alien continent. Deng in his black skin is a brother to that suddenly isolated couple of boys in Lake Forest, Illinois. They went to San Francisco to start again. Deng has caught the American infection and feels he has to move on too. He wants a quiet spot or anyway somewhere else. Will he go to Macon? Or Arizona? He may just drive to Seattle. In a word he's off to discover the What, which is simply the unknown, not the ground beneath his feet, but the surprising and probably sadder next thing around the corner.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008