Monday, February 05, 2007

BOOK: "What is the What," by Dave Eggers

The story of the What (as told by the elders of Marial Bai, recounted by Valentino Achak Deng, and now fictionalized in What is the What by Dave Eggers) is a morality tale, a test of man's capacity to appreciate what one has been given: to "take pleasure in the bounty before him, rather than trade it for the unknown." However, that unknown, that What, plagues our victimized hero as his own capacity to appreciate life is tested by the violence of the murahaleen against the simple Dinka people, is tested by a terse exodus from Sudan to Ethiopia and then a second flight (prompted by a second slaughter) to Kenya. "I turned to see a boy in the jaws of a crocodile," says Valentino, using a language of savage simplicity, frightening us with how ordinary such deaths are. "The river blossomed red and the boy's face disappeared. -Keep going. Now he's too busy to eat you." As if the horrors of civil war in Sudan are not enough, our tale begins with Valentino being robbed and held hostage in his own apartment -- and this, worst of all insults, after he has been moved to America in a resettlement of the so-called "Lost Boys." Eggers himself is invisible through all of this, wisely allowing Valentino's voice to be the only constant, although you can see Eggers' touch in the narrative, which leaps between Africa and America to parallel the one thing we all need: to be heard.

"It is criminal that all of this has happened, has been allowed to happen.
"In a furious burst, I kick and kick again, flailing my body like a fish run aground. Hear me, Christian neighbors. Hear your brother just above!
"Nothing again. No one is listening. No one is waiting to hear the kicking of a man above. It is unexpected. You have no ears for someone like me."
Genocide and slaughter are button issues that go frequently overlooked, and it would be all too easy to ignore it further, but Eggers presents a heartbreaking work (of staggering genius) here with this novelization. Valentino is such a likable character--warm and innocent--and his struggles so horrifying (made more abhorrent by their calmed narration) that this is a tale one cannot easily shake.
"We had walked for an hour, the wind wild and warm, when we heard an animal sound. This was not the sound of an adult--we heard much of that on the way, moaning and retching--this was a baby, wailing in a low voice. It scared me to hear a baby making such a sound, guttural and choking, something like the dying growl of a cat. We soon found the infant, perhaps six months old, lying next to its mother, who was splayed on the path, dead. The baby tried to breastfeed on its mother for a moment before giving up, crying out, tiny hands as fists."
Nor should one want to shake this tale, for it is not a tale, not really. Even though Dave Eggers has presented this as a fictitious autobiography, there is a real Valentino, and even if the events in this novel have not happened just so, it is easy to believe that they have, could have, or will in the future. For those who are just looking to be entertained, shameless as that might be in the light of such sensitive material, What is the What is an engaging, multifaceted read as well: Book 1 is a cultural investigation, Book 2 pulls upon the common tropes of the war novel (sarcasm, nicknames, &c.), and Book 3 is like Catch-22 in the limbo-like contradictions of the UN-run refugee camp. And through it all run childish or tragic romances (with the Royal Girls of Pinyudo or the wonderfully liberated Tabitha), not to mention great friendships and adventures. These five hundred pages are an immensely transporting read, squeezed full of as many rich textures as a book by Marquez and as much global importance as something by Rushdie. At the same time, this is a book all Eggers' own, a convincing tale that will--in its charming deceptions--serve as a rallying call to the real problems of Africa.

None of this answers what the What is, though the morals of Valentino continue to show as he thrusts his silent and unheard story onto the people he encounters in his everyday life. Much of the novel is presented as a tract against the people who have wronged him and spills out in a series of questions: "Do you have a feeling, Michael, that you will wake up tomorrow? That you will eat tomorrow? That the world will not end tomorrow?" In America, where we take so much for granted, Valentino thrusts his accusations upon our childish concerns of gym memberships and petty needs--almost as if to say, How dare you?
"Tell me, where is your mother, Michael? Have you ever seen her terrified? No child should see this. It is the end of childhood, when you see your mother's face slacken, her eyes dead. When she is defeated by simply seeing the threat approaching. When she does not believe she can save you."
The story grows larger than Valentino, too, aided by the limited omniscience granted by volumes of research material and interviews conducted by Eggers. Valentino is the everyman that allows us to meet characters like Moses--who is enslaved first by Arab raiders and then, after escaping, by the rebel army--and William K., a bright and hopeful boy, filled to the brim with optimistic lies even in the brink of despair, who eventually succumbs to exhaustion. Their testimonials are handled like interviews out of The Paris Review, but the sheer force of the stories overwhelms the simplicity of their presentation--in fact, it is enhanced by the bluntness of it. No dressing is necessary for such unspeakably realistic horrors.

The morality tale of the What has another meaning too, a meaning drenched in faith and hope for something greater than the suffering of this earth; in the end, the What is what you make of it. And What is the What is a brilliant and powerful tale of survival, hope, and tragedy.

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