Dave Eggers’s “What is the What”

War and famine and slavery as they come to us in newspaper headlines are troubling events that we puzzle over or analyze or ignore, and often soon forget. When a novelist like Eggers brings us such events in vivid description and detail through the experience of a given individual, a boy on the verge of manhood, we remember.

I almost skipped reviewing this book here, just because I’m so far behind the curve in reading it. And then I realized that other people may have, like me, missed this one when if first came out at the end of 2006, and may, like me, be grateful to find this amazing novel.

The book is the slightly fictionalized account of the journey of Valentino Achek Deng (actual name), a young refugee whose village was destroyed in the Sudanese Civil War. Deng was one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” tens of thousands of boys who walked from villages in southern Sudan to Ethiopia and Kenya for refugee in the wake of fighting and famine. They lost their homes and families, their childhoods, their trust in the world. Having once read this novel, one knows the magnitude of this horror, and the headlines take on new meaning.

But I don’t recommend the book only because it brings world events vividly alive. This is also a wonderfully realized novel, with a protagonist whose observations and understanding are unique and whose longings for his dead family, observations on the behavior of hungry lions in the wild, and musings on the behavior of Americans (as the novel begins, he is working and living in Atlanta) light the novel’s dark events with comic wit and compassion. Deng in fact does not belabor his suffering but reaches constantly for life and human relationship. Eggers has done an amazing job of creating a novel that is true to events but also a full artistic creation. Give this book a try and share it with your friends.

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