I didn’t love this book – no-one can say they enjoy reading about children starving in the desert after fleeing their burning villages with memories of their parents battered and bleeding still fresh in their minds. Who can find pleasure in page after page of the most unthinkable, ceaseless violence, which conjures images of children walking barefoot through war zones, which in some cases is preferable to the alternative; i.e. being stalked through the long grass by lions and other predators. You are not spared descriptions of the sound of crunching bones, or the way a Lion looks with a little body lying slack in its jaws. But the toughest reading for me came when Valentino had to bury his best friend; someone we can all recognise in our own stories; The joker of the village, the jester, the grand-master story-teller, a boy so vividly depicted that his slow demise and painful death comes as such a brutal shock as to feel as though you are actually there.
Here’s an excerpt from that scene:
I could not watch the first dirt fall on William K’s face so I kicked the first layer with the back of my heel. Once his head was covered, I spread more dirt and rocks until it bore some resemblance to a real grave. When I was finished, I told William K that I was sorry. I was sorry that I had not known how sick he was. That I had not found a way to keep him alive. That I was the last person he saw on this earth. That he could not say good-bye to his mother and father, that only I would know where his body lay. It was a broken world, I knew then, that would allow a boy such as me to bury a boy such as William K”
And it doesn’t let up there, either, because we soon learn that shallow graves such as these will be dug up moments later by the vultures patiently circling overhead.
So no. There is nothing pleasant about reading ‘What is the What’. But am I a better person for having read it? Definitely. Did I learn something? Stacks. In fact, this is where you have to give the Eggers/Achek Deng Duo their dues. I have been reading (or attempting to read) some non-fiction accounts of the war (wars, plural, and without end) in Sudan and let me tell you, there is nothing straightforward about this history lesson. What I enjoyed most about ‘What is the What’ was its ability to humanise the different factions, to give people faces and stories that provided a much needed context for the conflicts and the various pressures, both domestic and international, that have exacerbated the situation over time. The lasting sentiment is a message about the futility of war generally, not about proportioning blame.
My only dissatisfaction with ‘What is the What’ is purely a question of style. Maybe it is a result of chanelling the voice of Valentino through Dave Eggers… I can’t be sure, but it comes across quite flat sometimes. The story is told as a series of one-way conversations between Valentino, presently a refugee in America, and the unsympathetic people he comes into contact with during (and after) an ordeal he suffers at the hands of some local thugs. Lying with his hands bound and mouth gagged, he “speaks” to his captors (and later nurses, passerbys, and so on) and through vivid flashbacks, tells them his life story. This has the effect, rather unsubtly, of causing one to reflect how even in making it to the safe haven of the United States, he still han’t managed to evade violence and destruction. This style just didn’t gel with me; it felt inauthentic.
I think I would have preferred a straight chronological “and then”, “and then”, approach. Although technically bland, it woud at least have avoided what felt like a rather patronising attempt to get me to look upon (to put it bluntly) every black refugee I come across in banal circumstances in the future and to imagine what unspoken stories they might be harboring within. I don’t think this is the intent in the novel, but it was certainly an unintended consequence of this style for me. Many people will likely disagree, and argue that the flashbacks between past and present is one of the strengths of the novel (the ability to intertwine the “before” and the “after” so as to reflect how a person actually experiences memory). But I think it would have been more powerful if the story read just like the straight memoir it really wants to be.
(One bonus of this book is that afterwards, you get to visit the website, listen to Valentino on You Tube, support his projects, and in that way, the story continues http://www.valentinoachakdeng.org/)